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Ford must face ex-supervisor's racial, sexual harassment claims

3 minute read

A 2015 Ford Mustang on the production line in Michigan. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

  • 'Pervasive' comments over four months support Title VII claim
  • Plaintiff says coworker sent lewd photos, groped her, made racial comments

(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court revived a former Ford Motor Co production plant employee's claims that she was forced to quit after the automaker failed to respond to near-daily sexual and racial harassment by a coworker who was training her.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said on Thursday the constant sexual and racially charged comments that DeAnna Johnson claims she received at Ford's Dearborn, Michigan truck plant were sufficiently "pervasive" to state race bias claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Johnson, who is Black, says the white coworker she "shadowed" for four months after she was hired as a production supervisor repeatedly asked her for nude photos and to show him her "black mounds" and "black mountains" and called her "chocolate Jolly Rancher" and "spicy chocolate."

Dearborn-based Ford and its lawyers at Bush Seyferth did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Nor did Johnson's lawyer, Carol Laughbaum of Sterling Attorneys at Law.

Johnson claims the production supervisor she was assigned to shadow almost immediately began making unwanted sexual comments toward her and hourly workers they supervised.

The coworker sent Johnson lewd messages and photos, including one of his penis and pornographic images of hourly employees, according to court filings, and began demanding that Johnson send him nude photos.

Johnson began complaining about the conduct to the senior production supervisor, and within a few months was transferred to a different area of the plant. But she was switched back for a few days to cover for an absent employee, and during that time her former coach put his hand down her shirt and grabbed her breast, she claims.

Johnson complained and the coworker was ultimately terminated, but not before Johnson went on unpaid medical leave and never returned to Ford.

She sued Ford in Detroit federal court in 2019, alleging racial harassment and a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII.

U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain last year granted summary judgment to Ford, finding that Johnson had failed to show that her coworker's racially charged comments were sufficiently "severe or pervasive" to create a hostile work environment.

Johnson appealed, and the 3rd Circuit on Thursday reversed. The individual comments made by the coworker may not have been severe, the panel said, but their constant nature over several months was pervasive.

Drain also ignored the fact the comments and messages were not just offensive, but in some cases physically threatening or humiliating, Circuit Judge Eric Clay wrote.

"Given how intertwined the sexual and racial harassment was in the present case, the district court erred in failing to consider ... those comments, messages, and pictures that were overtly sexual in addition to the race-related ones," the judge said.

Clay said that on remand, Drain should first consider whether Johnson has shown that Ford knew or should have known about the coworker's race-based harassment and failed to act in response.

The panel included Circuit Judges Karen Moore and Jane Stranch.

The case is Johnson v. Ford Motor Co, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 20-2032.

For Johnson: Carol Laughbaum of Sterling Attorneys at Law

For Ford: Stephanie Douglas of Bush Seyferth

Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.

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