Court destroys my “Ravishing Rick Rude” theory of same-sex harassment

Cut the music.

rick-rude-flex-appeal-oA little over a year ago, I wrote here about a steel worker named Kerry Woods. Unfortunately for Mr. Woods, he was on the receiving end of a constant barrage of “raw homophobic epithets and lewd gestures” from his supervisor. Notwithstanding, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out a $500K jury award for Mr. Woods, holding that Mr. Woods’s same-sex sexual harassment claims failed because he failed to satisfy the Supreme Court’s test in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc.

Oncale was another same-sex harassment case involving employees at an oil rig. In Oncale, the high court held that a jury may infer that same-sex harassment occurred because of sex when the plaintiff can produce:

  1. credible evidence that the harasser was homosexual;
  2. evidence that makes it clear that the harasser is motivated by general hostility to the presence of the same sex in the workplace; or
  3. comparative evidence about how the alleged harasser treated members of both sexes in the mixed-sex workplace.

As Mr. Woods failed to satisfy any of the three Oncale elements, the Fifth Circuit overturned the jury award in his favor. This led me to dork out by likening employment law to wrestling develop the Ravishing Rick Rude / Adorable Adrian Adonis test: “Put simply, if the plaintiff is stereotypically masculine, like Rick Rude, a theory of sexual stereotyping will fail and so will a claim under Title VII.”

Last week, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (here) reconsidered, reversed itself and, in doing so, gave my theory the rude awakening. First, it held that a plaintiff may establish a sexual harassment claim with evidence of sex-stereotyping. Further, it recognized that the Supreme Court did not intend for its Oncale three-part test to be exclusive; but rather, illustrative. That is, to prevail on a same-sex sexual harassment claim, a plaintiff need only show that his harasser stereotyped him as “insufficiently masculine.”

The recent opinion provides further reason for employers not to tolerate offensive remarks of any sort in the workplace.

Now, hit the music.