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Court Rules 'Boorish' Behavior Is Not Harassment

Friday, November 1, 2002
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A federal appeals court in Louisiana, in a divided vote, has thrown out a $1 million verdict against General Motors awarded to a woman who claimed she was sexually harassed while working at the automaker's Wentzville plant in suburban St. Louis from 1994 to 1997.

Diana Duncan, 38, initially won her case against GM after resigning from the plant, filing a sexual-discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and later suing. A federal jury in December 1999 awarded her $700,000 on her sexual harassment charge and $300,000 on her claim of intolerable working conditions.

In her suit, Duncan claims she was subjected to unwelcome advances throughout her three years of employment by co-worker James Booth. She also claims Booth criticized her work when she rebuffed him, unnecessarily touched her hand, exposed her to a sexually explicit computer screensaver and had a planter shaped like a slouched man wearing a sombrero with a cactus protruding from his pants.

In addition, she claims Booth also tacked a "recruitment" poster to a bulletin board portraying Duncan as president and chief executive of the "Man Hater's Club of America." Booth denied Duncan's claims, telling the press they "never happened." He still works at the plant and has never been reprimanded for the alleged conduct.

In the 2-1 decision rejecting Duncan's verdict, Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge David Hansen writes that, while "boorish," such behavior did not create a hostile work environment and Duncan had failed to prove that Booth's conduct rose to the level of harassment.

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"Numerous cases have rejected hostile-work-environment claims premised upon facts equally or more egregious than the conduct at issue here," Hansen writes. "Booth's actions were boorish, chauvinistic and decidedly immature, but we cannot say they created an objectively hostile work environment permeated with sexual harassment."

In his dissenting opinion, however, Judge Richard S. Arnold writes that Duncan "was subjected to a long series of incidents of sexual harassment in her workplace, going far beyond 'gender-related jokes and occasional teasing.' "

Jay Cooney, GM's legal and safety spokesman, says his company "has contended all along that this case had no merit."

Stephen Ryals, who represents Duncan, says he plans to petition the Eighth Circuit to reconsider its decision.

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