In Williams v. CSX Transportation Co., Inc. (6th Cir. 09-5564 June 28, 2011) (PDF), a splintered panel of the Sixth Circuit provided content to an undefined statutory term in an EEOC lawsuit, resuscitating a plaintiff’s allegations of a sexually-hostile work environment along the way.

The plaintiff, Stephanie Williams (“Williams”), sued her employer, CSX Transportation Co. (“CSX”) on multiple grounds, including allegedly subjecting her to a work environment that was racially and sexually hostile.  Williams alleged that her supervisors at the Bruceton, Tennessee facility had treated her differently from her white counterparts, providing allegations involving unpleasant janitorial duties, disparate treatment as to tool rental and reimbursements, and a clash with one supervisor who Williams claimed used sexually and racially derogatory language.  Williams filed a “Charge Information Form” with the EEOC, alleging sexual and racial discrimination, but she failed to sign the charge form under oath or penalty of perjury.  The EEOC then completed a second form, encapsulating some of Williams’ claims, and Williams signed that form under oath.  The district court granted summary judgment to CSX on Williams’ sexual discrimination claim, ruling that Williams had failed to submit a “charge” to the EEOC and therefore had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies.  The remaining counts went to jury trial, but at the end of Williams’ case-in-chief, the district court granted judgment as a matter of law on her racial discrimination claim.

Judge Merritt wrote for the panel majority.  Joined by Judge Rogers, Judge Merritt upheld the district court’s grant of judgment as a matter of law as to Williams’ racial discrimination claim, with Judge White dissenting.  Then, joined by Judge White, Judge Merritt reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to CSX as to the sexual discrimination claim, with Judge Rogers in dissent.

As to the latter, the issue before the panel involved what constitutes a “charge” under EEOC procedures — an issue of first impression for the Sixth Circuit.  Answering this question, the majority ruled that a “charge”: 1) must be verified by the complainant, 2) must contain information sufficiently precise to identify the parties and described the allegedly discriminatory practices, and 3) must be written such that an objective observer would believe that the filing constituted a request for the agency to engage in remedial action.  Applying this test, the majority found that Williams’ filings with the EEOC, taken together, constituted a “charge,” whereas Judge Rogers, writing in dissent, argued that, by relating several of Williams’ filings together (some of which she had not signed under oath), the majority would effectively “permit employees, without fear of sanction, to force their employers to respond to potentially frivolous harassment claims, thereby undermining the statutory scheme.”

The splintered majority next found that, because Williams had failed to introduce evidence showing severe or pervasive racial discrimination, the district court properly granted CSX judgment as a matter of law.  While the evidence showed, for instance, that Williams had experienced racially insulting statements by one of her supervisors, the majority did not find that the severe-or-pervasive threshold had been met.  In a dissent that highlighted the testimony at trial and that compared Williams’ allegations and evidence to those in Betts v. Costco Wholesale Group, 558 F.3d 461 (6th Cir. 2009) (PDF), in which the Sixth Circuit upheld a race-based hostile environment claim, Judge White disagreed.  Judge White would have reversed the trial court on that issue, finding that “Williams’ evidence in the instant case is at least comparable to the plaintiffs’ in Betts in terms of severity.”