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Archive for January, 2010

After working as a sales representative for three years at C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Ingrid Reeves sued the company for allegedly subjecting her to a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. Reeves alleged she was subjected daily to gender-specific vulgarities (“bitch,” “fucking bitch,” “fucking whore,” “crack whore,” and “cunt”) from her male co-workers. She stated they also talked within ear-shot about masturbation and bestiality and often listened to a Howard Stern-like radio show loaded with sexual references. The trial court dismissed Reeves’s claims. The trial court found that the language and sexual comments were not directed at her specifically. Because the offensive behavior was not motivated by her gender, the trial court held that Reeves had no Title VII claims.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals initially reversed the trial court’s ruling, holding 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 court held that a jury could reasonably find that the offensive conduct was “humiliating and degrading” to women specifically, stating as follows:

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. 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.

The court further noted that referring to a female as a “bitch” is “firmly rooted in gender” and that such language “is humiliating and degrading based on sex” regardless of the intended target.

For the full story, click here.

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Breanna Lewis v. Heartland Inns of America, L.L.C., No. 08-3860.

Facts

Heartland Inns of America, L.L.C. (“Heartland Inns”), operates a group of hotels in Iowa. In July 2005, Breanna Lewis began working for Heartland Inns. Over the next year and a half, Lewis successfully filled several positions related to guest services. Lewis received multiple commendations from her direct supervisors and two merit based pay raises. On December 14, 2006, Lewis was hired to work a full-time position at the front desk of the Ankeny hotel from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., after her supervisor at Ankeny, Lori Stifel, received permission from Barbara Cullinan, Director of Operations for Heartland Inns.

After seeing Lewis, Cullinan told Stifel that Lewis was not a “good fit” for the front desk because of her lack of “prettiness” and the “Midwestern girl look.” Lewis describes her appearance as “slightly more masculine” and notes she prefers to wear loose fitting clothing and avoid makeup. Stifel refused to move Lewis to a night-time position because Lewis had been doing “a phenomenal job at the front desk.” Stifel was asked to resign, and she informed Lewis of Cullinan’s comments regarding her appearance.

Cullinan required Lewis to attend a second interview, and Lewis told Cullinan that she believed her interview was being required only because she did not have the “Midwestern girl look.” Cullinan and Lewis discussed some of the recent policy changes made by Heartland Inns, such as banning smoking and pets, and how such changes might affect revenue. Cullinan encouraged Lewis to share more of her views on the policies and took notes. Three days later, Lewis was fired. The termination letter she received stated that she had “thwart[ed] the proposed interview procedure” and shown “host[ility] toward Heartland’s most recent policies.”

Lewis filed suit against Heartland Inns, asserting she was terminated for not conforming to sex stereotypes in violation of Title VII and Iowa Civil Rights laws. Heartland Inns moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted because Lewis had failed to produce evidence that she was treated differently than similarly situated males.

Appeal

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that, to survive summary judgment, Lewis must present evidence that (1) she was a member of a protected group, (2) she was qualified to perform the job, (3) she suffered an adverse employment action, and (4) circumstances permit an inference of discrimination. Once she has presented a prima facie case of discrimination under Title VII, Heartland Inns must produce a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its employment action. Then Lewis must prove that Heartland Inn’s proffered reason is pretextual.

The court noted that the prima facie requirement under Title VII is a “flexible evidentiary standard” that was “never intended to be rigid, mechanized, or ritualistic.” Quoting the Supreme Court, the court wrote, “The principal focus of [Title VII] is the protection of the individual employee, rather than the protection of the minority group as a whole.” The court overruled the trial court’s holding that Lewis must produce evidence that she was treated differently than men, noting that a reasonable factfinder could find that (1) Lewis was fired because she lacked the “Midwestern girl look” and (2) Heartland Inns’ reason for termination was pretextual. Accordingly, the case was reversed and remanded.

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Dr. Abdel Moniem Ali El-Ganayni, an Egyptian native, has lived in the United States since the 1980s and worked as a nuclear physicist for Bettis Laboratory. In 2007, El-Ganayni passed out copies of a Muslim religious tract called "The Miracle in the Ant" at a prison. He was grilled by the Bettis Laboratory security manager and then the FBI. Investigators suggested that some of the scientific information contained in the work, specifically that some ants can burst their bodies open and secrete a deadly substance as a defense mechanism, could be construed as an apology for suicide bombing. Soon after the interviews, the Department of Energy (“DOE”) revoked El-Ganayni’s clearance and fired him without providing specifics, saying in a letter that it believed he "may be subject to pressure, coercion, exploitation, or duress which may cause [him] to act contrary to the best interests of national security. Specifically, the circumstances or conduct involve conflicting allegiances."

El-Ganayni filed suit against the DOE to obtain a hearing to contest the decision and alleged that he was fired because he (1) spoke out against the FBI, the war in Iraq, and U.S. foreign policy in Pittsburgh-area mosques and (2) worked as an Imam at a prison where he ran afoul of officials for distributing Muslim literature. The trial court dismissed El-Ganayni’s petition, and he appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Third Circuit upheld the trial court’s decision, noting that El-Ganayni’s claim "could never be meaningfully litigated" and that the "outcome is pre-ordained" due to the broad national security powers given to the Executive Branch. The court based its decision on the 1988 case Department of the Navy v. Egan, in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that while agency action is presumptively reviewable, that presumption is limited when it comes to national security issues. The court explained as follows:

The legal framework applicable to that claim would demand from the DOE an explanation of its decision to revoke El-Ganayni’s clearance, and allow a factfinder to weigh the DOE’s arguments in support of that decision. Egan forbids both.

For the full story, click here.

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In re: the Estate of Mary Elizabeth Reimer, incompetent, No. CA09-770.

In 2004, George Reimer petitioned for guardianship over his wife, Mary Elizabeth Reimer. The trial court found Mrs. Reimer incompetent and appointed Mr. Reimer as guardian over her person. Two years later, Mr. Reimer moved to change guardians, and Karen Hunter, Mrs. Reimer’s daughter, was appointed as guardian over Mrs. Reimer’s person and estate. In 2008, Mrs. Reimer moved to terminate the guardianship, arguing that she was not notified about the expansion of the guardianship to include her estate and that she no longer needed a guardian. Hunter filed an amended petition for appointment of herself as guardian of Mrs. Reimer’s person and estate. At a joint hearing, the trial court held that the amended petition cured any notice defects and that a guardianship of the person and estate was still needed. Hunter remained as guardian. After the hearing, Mrs. Reimer’s attorney, Frances Morris Finley, moved for attorney’s fees incurred on her behalf, and the trial court denied that motion.

Finley appealed the denial. The Arkansas Court of Appeals held that Finley had standing to appeal the order because she “has a pecuniary interest affected by the court’s disposition of the matter below.” The court then upheld the trial court’s ruling, noting that no Arkansas statute authorized an award of attorney’s fees under these circumstances.

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Rettig v. Ballard, No. 09-361.

According to his complaint, Jimmy Rettig’s vehicle was rear-ended by a truck owned by Mississippi Coast Carrier and driven by Alton Ballard. Rettig filed his complaint on January 23, 2008, and had two summonses issued to the defendants on February 22, 2008, and February 29, 2008, respectively. Although defendants were located in Tennessee and entitled to thirty days in which to respond to Rettig’s complaint, both summonses stated that defendants had twenty days in which to respond. Both defendants were timely served with a summons and complaint.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that (1) the summonses were defective and the case against them had to be dismissed and (2) the statute of limitations had run and the dismissal should be with prejudice. The trial court agreed and dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice because it had never been properly commenced.

On appeal, the Arkansas Supreme Court explained that the savings statute, Ark. Code Ann. § 16-56-126, protected a plaintiff from suffering a complete loss of relief because of a procedural defect. The court further explained that, for purposes of the savings statute, a lawsuit was commenced when (1) a complaint is timely filed and (2) service of the complaint and summons (effective or defective) is completed within the 120 days allowed. If a trial court later finds that the summons was defective, the plaintiff is still entitled to the benefit of the one-year savings statute. Accordingly, the court reversed the judgment of the trial court and remanded the case.

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Elder Construction Co. v. Ivey Lane, LLC, No. CA09-63.

In 2003, Elder Construction Company (“Elder”) and Ivey Lane, LLC (“Ivey Lane”), entered into a contract for Elder to purchase sixteen unimproved residential lots in the Enclave Subdivision of Springdale from Ivey Lane for a total purchase price of $1,282,400. Each of the lots available in the subdivision were listed in the contract with its individual price, ranging from $77,500 to $84,900 depending on the lot’s size, location, and topography. Elder determined which of the sixteen lots its would purchase from this list.

Under the contract, Elder was to purchase the sixteen lots in four separate closings that were scheduled to occur every six months until all of the sixteen  lots had been purchased. Elder purchased twelve lots during the first three closings, but did not appear for the fourth closing for Lots 2 ($77,500), 9 ($84,900), 12 ($84,900), and 46 ($77,500). Ivey Lane was able to sell Lot 46 to a third-party for $77,500. Ivey Lane then filed suit against Elder requesting specific performance for Elder’s breach of contract related to Lots 2, 9, and 12.

At trial, the primary dispute between the parties was whether the contract was severable into sixteen different contracts. Ivey Lane contended that the lots (1) were not physically or topographically identical (2) were independently priced based on their desirability. Elder admitted that each of the lots were different and individually priced, but argued that the contract was not severable based on the total purchase price for the lots. The trial court found that (1) Elder breached the contract with Ivey Lane, (2) the contract was severable, (3) Ivey Lane did not have an adequate remedy at law, and (4) Ivey Lane was entitled to specific performance. The trial court ordered Elder to purchase Lots 2, 9, and 12 at the prices listed in the contract within sixty days. The trial court also dismissed Elder’s counterclaim.

On appeal, Elder argued that the trial court incorrectly found that the contract was severable. The Arkansas Court of Appeals quoted previous precedent as follows:

Where the price to be paid is clearly and distinctly apportioned to different parts of what is to be performed, although the whole is in its nature single and entire, the contract is severable.

The court noted that, even though the contract contained a total price for the sixteen lots, both parties agreed that each of the lots was different and individually priced. Accordingly, the court held that there was sufficient evidence to support the trial court’s finding that the contract was severable.

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