(CN) - The pervasive use of slurs such as "bitch," "whore" and "cunt" can create a hostile workplace for women even when the profanities aren't directed at a specific woman, the 11th Circuit ruled.
Sitting en banc, the Atlanta-based appeals court reversed a district court's finding that a former employee of a shipping company had no claim against her employer after years of listening to her male co-workers refer to people as "bitch," "fucking bitch," "fucking whore," "crack whore" and "cunt."
After working at the Birmingham, Ala., branch of C. H. Robinson Worldwide as a sales representative for about three years, Ingrid Reeves sued the company for allegedly subjecting her to a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Reeves, a former Merchant Marine who "was no stranger to the coarse language endemic to the transportation industry," according to the ruling, said she was subjected daily to gender-specific vulgarities from her male co-workers. They also talked within earshot about masturbation and bestiality, and often listened to a Howard Stern-like radio show loaded with sexual references, according to Reeves.
The district court ruled for the company, finding that Reeves had no Title VII claims because the language and sexual comments were not directed at her specifically, so the offensive behavior was not motivated by her gender.
On appeal, a panel of the 11th Circuit in Atlanta reversed, ruling that Reeves had presented a jury question about whether the offensive conduct was based on her sex.
In 2009 the court vacated that ruling and agreed to rehear the case en banc.
In a unanimous ruling, the 11-judge panel ruled that a jury could reasonably find that the offensive conduct was "humiliating and degrading" to women specifically.
Writing for the court, Judge Stanley Marcus said that although not all vulgar, profane or sexual language in the workplace constitutes discrimination, "a plaintiff can prove a hostile work environment by showing severe or pervasive discrimination directed against her protected group, even if she herself is not individually singled out in the offensive conduct."
Referring to a female colleague as a "bitch" is "firmly rooted in gender," Marcus wrote. "It is humiliating and degrading based on sex," no matter who's the target.
"It is enough to hear co-workers on a daily basis refer to female colleagues as 'bitches,' 'whores' and 'cunts,' to understand that they view women negatively, and in a humiliating or degrading way," Marcus wrote. "The harasser need not close the circle with reference to the plaintiff specifically."
The court concluded that C.H. Robinson was more than just a "rough" and "indiscriminately vulgar" place to work.
"Instead, a jury reasonably could find that it was a workplace that exposed Reeves to disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment to which members of the other sex were not exposed," Marcus wrote. "Title VII was plainly designed to protect members of a protected group from adverse conditions of employment like those Reeves alleges were endemic to C.H. Robinson."