Roberts v. Glenn Indus. Grp., Inc.

Decision Date21 May 2021
Docket NumberNo. 19-1215,19-1215
Citation998 F.3d 111
Parties Chazz J. ROBERTS, Plaintiff – Appellant, v. GLENN INDUSTRIAL GROUP, INC.; Glenn Underwater Services, Inc.; Glenn Underwater Services, LLC, Defendants – Appellees. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Amicus Supporting Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

ARGUED: Geraldine Sumter, FERGUSON CHAMBER & SUMTER, P.A., Charlotte, North Carolina, for Appellant. Jeremy Daniel Horowitz, UNITED STATES EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Washington, D.C., for Amicus Curiae. Frederick Martin Thurman, Jr., SHUMAKER LOOP & KENDRICK, PLLC, Charlotte, North Carolina, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: James L. Lee, Deputy General Counsel, Jennifer S. Goldstein, Associate General Counsel, Sydney A.R. Foster, Assistant General Counsel, Office of General Counsel, UNITED STATES EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Washington, D.C., for Amicus Curiae.

Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, AGEE, and KEENAN, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed in part, vacated in part by published opinion. Chief Judge Gregory wrote the opinion, in which Judge Agee and Judge Keenan concurred.

GREGORY, Chief Judge:

This appeal arises out of a former employee's allegations of same-sex sexual harassment by his supervisor and retaliatory termination. Chazz Roberts ("Roberts") appeals from the district court's entry of summary judgment in favor of his former employer, Glenn Industrial Group, Inc. ("Glenn Industrial" or "the company"), on claims of sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e) et seq . We affirm the district court's summary judgment as to Roberts’ retaliation claim, but vacate summary judgment as to his sexual harassment claim and remand for further proceedings.

I.

In reviewing the district court's award of summary judgment, we state the facts and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to Roberts, the nonmoving party. Smith v. Collins , 964 F.3d 266, 274 (4th Cir. 2020). Glenn Industrial is a Charlotte, North Carolina-based corporation that provides underwater inspection and repair services to utility companies. Because underwater inspections and repairs are high-risk activities, Glenn Industrial prioritizes workplace safety. All of Glenn Industrial's non-office employees are male.

In July 2015, Glenn Industrial hired Appellant Roberts as a "dive tender," or diver's assistant. At the time, Roberts received and signed for a copy of the company handbook, which included a "no harassment" policy. The policy required that all complaints of sexual harassment be reported to the company's CEO, Richard Glenn ("Glenn").

From the beginning of Roberts’ employment, his supervisor, Andrew Rhyner ("Rhyner") repeatedly called Roberts "gay" and made sexually explicit and derogatory remarks towards him, including statements referring to him as a "fucking retard" or having "retard strength," and asking him "how much dicks [he] would suck for money." J.A. 48–49. Roberts stated that "pretty much every time I'm around Andrew I was getting harassed by him." J.A. 41. Rhyner also physically assaulted Roberts at least twice. On one occasion, Rhyner slapped Roberts’ safety glasses off his face, pushed him, and put him in a chokehold. On another occasion, Rhyner slapped Roberts, knocking his helmet off his head, when he, in Rhyner's estimation, "said something stupid." J.A. 53. Roberts complained to Rhyner's supervisor, Bruce Evans, at least four times over the course of his employment. Evans told Roberts to "suck it up." J.A. 48. Roberts also complained to another supervisor, Brandon Neal, who witnessed some of Rhyner's conduct.

Finally, Roberts voiced his concerns to Ana Glenn ("Mrs. Glenn"), Vice President of Glenn Industrial, the company's Human Resources Manager, and wife of the company's CEO. His complaints, made in November 2015 and January 2016, described Rhyner's conduct in detail. Roberts did not, however, complain directly to Glenn. Rhyner was not disciplined or counseled, and his harassment of Roberts continued.

According to Roberts, Glenn Industrial often failed to address workplace safety issues. He reported a variety of safety violations related to the lack of necessary safety equipment and noted that the company failed to report safety issues as required.

Roberts was involved in a work-related accident on March 16, 2016 at a job site in Eden, North Carolina. A piece of equipment caught fire while Roberts was fueling it and he suffered burns to his hands and face. Roberts contends he was burned despite wearing his safety gloves, but Glenn attests that he was told Roberts was not wearing them at the time of the incident.

After receiving first aid, Roberts drove himself back to Charlotte where he met with Glenn. Glenn explained to Roberts that what he had done was very unsafe and that Glenn would have to release him if he had another safety incident. Roberts did not tell Glenn he was being mistreated, harassed, or discriminated against while at work. Roberts returned to the job site in Eden the next day.

On April 11, 2016, Roberts was on an assignment in Eden when Neal, the job-site supervisor, removed him from the site. According to Neal, Roberts was "disruptive and acting erratic all morning," "appeared confused," "was working in the wrong area," and was wearing earbuds, which was strictly forbidden. J.A. 214. Roberts was later found in a fall hazard area, "swaying and unsure of his footing, without his hardhat, safety glasses, or gloves, and without [his] fall protection connected." J.A. 214-15. Neal sent Roberts back to their hotel after noting that his eyes were "glassed over" and his speech was slurred. J.A. 215.

Upon learning of Roberts’ removal from the job site, Glenn directed Glenn Industrial's safety manager, Thomas Grice, to return Roberts to Charlotte. Grice described Roberts as incoherent, with slurred speech and "dazed" eyes. J.A. 215, 326-27. On the way, they stopped in Greensboro, where Roberts was administered a drug test. He ultimately tested negative for drugs. Glenn met with Roberts later that day. Roberts denied using drugs or being intoxicated at work. He again made no mention that he was being mistreated, harassed, or discriminated against at work. According to Roberts, Glenn told him that he was not fit for duty and directed him to take a few days off, and then never called him back to work. Glenn contends that he terminated Roberts based on the two safety incidents, particularly the second one, which he considered to be very serious.

Roberts filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC in June 2016 alleging sex discrimination and retaliation.1 The EEOC Charge stated that his supervisor called him "gay," made "numerous sexually explicit negative comments toward" him, and assaulted him. Id . Following an investigation, the EEOC dismissed the Charge and issued Roberts a "right-to-sue" letter.

Roberts sued Glenn Industrial in February 2018, alleging, among other claims, same-sex sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e), et seq . ("Title VII"). The district court, relying on Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services , 523 U.S. 75, 118 S.Ct. 998, 140 L.Ed.2d 201 (1998), rejected Roberts’ claim that his supervisor harassed him on the basis of sex and granted summary judgment to the employer. The court found that Oncale identified three situations that support a claim of same-sex sexual harassment based on gender, but none of those " Oncale situations" applied in Roberts’ case. J.A. 447.

Further, the court found that Roberts had not established a claim of retaliation under Title VII because he did not proffer evidence that Glenn, the decisionmaker, was aware of his sexual harassment complaints before he fired him. The court held that even if Glenn had been aware of Roberts’ protected activity, a " ‘months’[-]long delay between protected conduct and an adverse action is too long" to support a causal relationship. J.A. 448. Finally, the district court held that Glenn Industrial set forth a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for his termination—his violation of company safety policies. Thus, Roberts could not prove that his alleged protected activity was the "but-for" cause of the adverse employment action. This appeal of Roberts’ Title VII claims followed.2

Roberts appeals the district court's decision to grant summary judgment to Glenn Industrial. He contends the court erred in concluding that Roberts (1) could not establish a claim of same-sex sexual harassment where he failed to prove his harasser identifies as gay; and (2) could not prove a claim of retaliation without evidence that the decisionmaker had actual knowledge of Roberts’ protected activity.

II.

This Court reviews an order of summary judgment de novo. Carnell Constr. Corp. v. Danville Redevelopment & Hous. Auth ., 745 F.3d 703, 716 (4th Cir. 2014). Summary judgment is appropriate when "there is no genuine dispute as to any material act and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a) ; see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 322–23, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). The court "consider[s] the evidence and all inferences fairly drawn from the evidence in the light most favorable to" the non-moving party. Carnell Constr. Corp. , 745 F.3d at 716.

Addressing each of Roberts’ arguments, we turn first to his claim that Glenn Industrial is liable under Title VII for harassment his supervisor inflicted upon him because of his sex. He contends he established a prima facie case of sexual harassment based on a hostile work environment, and the district court misapplied the Supreme Court's decision in Oncale when it failed to recognize his claim on the ground that his harasser did not identify as gay.

A.

Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer "to discriminate against any individual with respect to his...

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