Female truckers alleging sexual harassment against one of the nation's largest transportation companies achieved a significant victory in court last month.
Leonard T. Strand, an Iowa federal judge, certified two classes of female truck drivers in their case against Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based CRST Expedited, the nation's largest team carrier. But the decision was rare in that it certified a hostile work environment in spite of the class members not sharing a workspace nor did the drivers in the case state they were harassed by the same individuals or share the same supervisors. This is unusual: generally, cases involving hostile work environments relate to a single office or set of colleagues. The case instead focuses more on problems with CRST's policies in handling and responding to complaints in a fractured workplace that is now yielding unique movement through the courts.
The putative class action case filed in the Northern District of Iowa's Cedar Rapids division, which lists driver Cathy Sellars as its lead plaintiff, alleges that CRST created an atmosphere in which women were subject to workplace harassment ranging from catcalling to rape. The case also contends that the women confronted a system that did little or nothing to handle or investigate claims.
In July, Mary Review, in partnership with The Investigative Fund, chronicled the patterns of sexual harassment and lack of enforcement many women in the trucking industry face. A human resources employee at CRST later testified that the company considered accusations of sexual harassment as being unfounded unless there was outside corroboration or an admission from the accused — a high bar considering that male-female driving teams can be alone on the road for several days. According to lawyers, one class now has more than 125 female truck drivers, and the other roughly 140, although there is overlap between the two.
Kevin Visser, lawyer for CRST said in an email that, “any comment on the Sellars matter would be premature (and probably inappropriate).”
“We were stunned,” Joshua Friedman, a lawyer representing the female truckers and president of the New York Chapter of National Employment Lawyers Association, said of last week's decision to certify the class. Friedman pointed to the decision's potential to open new avenues to classify cert (lawyer speak for issuing a review) after Wal-Mart v. Dukes, a 2011 US Supreme Court case in which Wal-Mart employees alleged they faced discriminated based on gender in both pay and promotions.
“What's really wild about this decision is it pushes the envelope way out on what types of cases can be certified under Dukes, particularly hostile work environment cases,” Friedman said. “Those seem to be the most difficult people to certify. Usually you're talking about one plant under single management, but here the harassment was happening when these trucks criss cross the US and none of the supervisors were there.”
The judge's decision also included and made public some new facts brought forth by discovery. CRST human resources received more than 1,425 sexual harassment complaints from 106 women between October 12, 2013 and February 24, 2016, according to the decision to certify the classes. Plaintiffs also contend that CRST has admitted that no driver manager — individuals tasked with supervising the teams on the road — “has ever been disciplined for encouraging a woman complaining of sexual harassment to stay on the truck.”
The complaint also brings to light the use of technology by the women experiencing harassment, particularly the increasing use of smartphones. One woman in the class, Veronica Saur, said that her co-driver “made offensive sexual comments to her, including requesting sex and asking to stay together in a hotel.” Saur used her phone to record some of the offensive comments, according to court documents, then called CRST dispatch to report his behavior and “offered the recordings as evidence.”
However, according to the certification decision, a CRST human resources representative said that she “could not consider the recordings because there was no way to verify whether it was her co-driver's voice or someone else's.” When Saur complained again to a terminal manager at CRST's Riverside facility, “he also refused to listen to the recordings.”
According to court documents, Saur's co-driver was not disciplined.