In Phillips v. UAW International (6th Cir. No. 16-1832, April 12, 2017), the plaintiff brought suit against her International Union under Title VII. An African-American, Phillips had served as chairperson of her local union for several years, and alleged she had been subjected to racial harassment by representatives of the International Union. The Sixth Circuit was faced with the question of whether a Union can be liable for hostile environment harassment as an employer under Title VII. The district court had found in the negative, and granted summary judgment for Union. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit affirmed, albeit on different grounds. Specifically, the district court had concluded that Title VII’s language dealing with unions precluded any liability against the defendant, and did not reach the merits of the hostile environment claim.

The Sixth Circuit, although recognizing that the question was a close one and other circuits had found otherwise, declined to address the threshold issue and instead affirmed summary judgment on the basis that the plaintiff had failed to make a sufficient showing that the alleged conduct by the union’s representatives was sufficiently severe and pervasive to create an abusive working environment.

On this issue, Phillips had alleged several racially-connected incidents over a two-year period by two employees of the International Union, Johnson and Kagels. Specifically, she alleged that Kagels had recommended termination of three other union representatives, all of whom were black; Johnson had told Phillips he needed another black on the union staff to “calm things down”; Johnson had referred to another union member as “big and black” and Phillips’ “bodyguard”; and Johnson had stated there were “too many blacks” in the union. Most notably, Johnson had separated grievances into stacks based on whether the employees were white or black. The court held that these incidents, if true, were offensive and condemnable. However, citing long-standing precedents from the court, it concluded that it had established a “relatively high bar” for what amounts to actionable discriminatory conduct and these incidents were not severe or pervasive enough to alter the terms of Phillips’ employment.

Judge Merritt issued a dissent, arguing that several circuits had found that Title VII’s workplace environment provisions cover labor organizations, and the trial court in this case had found that if Title VII covered unions, then Phillips had clearly had made out a case against the union of creating a hostile, racially discriminatory workplace. Additionally, the dissent noted that the EEOC had filed an amicus brief with a statement of the facts from its investigation which, if proved to  jury, would be sufficient to sustain a jury verdict.