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Aman v. Cort Furniture Rental Corp.

May 30, 1996

CAROL AMAN; JEANETTE JOHNSON APPELLANTS,

v.

CORT FURNITURE RENTAL CORPORATION APPELLEE.



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY

(D.C. Civil No. 93-cv-01344)

BEFORE: STAPLETON, MANSMANN and LEWIS, Circuit Judges.

LEWIS, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED JANUARY 24, 1996

Filed May 30, 1996)

OPINION OF THE COURT

Carol Aman and Jeanette Johnson appeal from the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Cort Furniture Rental Corporation on their employment discrimination claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. Section(s) 2000e, et seq, and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J. Stat. Ann. 10:5-12, et seq. They argue that the record contains evidence from which a jury could conclude: (1) that while employed at Cort Furniture, they were subject to a hostile work environment; (2) that Aman was constructively discharged; (3) that Johnson was discharged in retaliation for protesting discrimination at Cort Furniture; and (4) that black employees were paid less than similarly situated white employees.

For the reasons which follow, we will reverse the district court's grant of summary judgment as to Aman's and Johnson's hostile environment, constructive discharge and retaliatory discharge claims, and will affirm its judgment as to their unequal pay claims.

I.

Carol Aman and Jeanette Johnson, both black, were hired by Cort Furniture's Philadelphia district office in 1986. Aman was hired as a bookkeeper and Johnson was hired as a credit manager. *fn1 Both Aman and Johnson claim that during their employment at Cort Furniture, they were subjected to an atmosphere of racial contempt and harassment. Aman claims that this resulted in her constructive discharge. Johnson claims that she was discharged in retaliation for complaining about Cort Furniture's discriminatory practices.

From 1986 through the termination of their employment in 1992, Aman and Johnson claim that co-workers and managers engaged in a pervasive and systematic pattern of harassment toward black employees. Aman and other black employees were referred to as "another one," "one of them," and "poor people." Aman was also the target of at least three false accusations of favoritism allegedly exhibited toward her by her black supervisor, as well as dereliction of duty. On several occasions, co-workers physically snatched documents from Aman's hands and stole time cards that she needed to perform her job.

This behavior, however, was not limited to Aman and Johnson's co-workers; it was engaged in by management as well. For example, both Aman and Johnson heard Allen Shuttleworth, Regional Vice-President of Cort Furniture, make disparaging racial remarks about their supervisor, Joyce Lampkin. On one occasion, Shuttleworth came into the office and asked the white employees on Lampkin's staff, "Where is that one in there?" Despite this harassment, in 1989 Aman was promoted to the position of credit manager, and Johnson became supervisor of the administrative department after Lampkin moved to the sales department. As a credit manager Aman was responsible for approving credit and collecting on past due accounts. Cort Furniture salespeople were required to submit credit applications to a credit clerk, who would run a credit check in order to determine whether to grant credit to the customer. After these promotions, Johnson became Aman's immediate supervisor. In November of that year, Johnson received a letter from the president of Cort Furniture congratulating her for her outstanding performance and for the performance of the department.

Aman's new position as credit manager did nothing to increase the respect of her fellow employees. She continued to suffer harassment from white sales staff and management, including Karen Brady, Lisa Jentsch, Katie Gauthier, Laura Greathead, Chris Benzle, Robert Kurtz, and Barry Boswell. According to Aman, the general atmosphere of racial hostility "lead [sic] white employees to feel confident that what they said would be listened to over black and made the whites uncooperative and unsupportive to blacks." As examples, Aman and Johnson point to the fact that Benzle instructed Johnson to put a derogatory memorandum in Aman's personnel file because he wanted Aman "out." Brady, Jentsch, and Greathead bypassed Aman and extended credit to customers against Cort Furniture policy, and there is no evidence that any of them were reprimanded for their behavior. In addition, Boswell, the sales manager, continually ignored Aman's requests for information necessary to her job. He also allegedly harassed Aman and another black employee by making them do menial tasks which were not within their job descriptions, such as running his personal errands. There is no evidence to indicate that he ever asked similarly situated white employees to do those tasks.

On one particular occasion, while Aman was using the restroom, Gauthier, a sales representative, demanded that Aman approve a credit application immediately. Aman replied, "Katie, have you heard the latest, Lincoln freed slaves?" In response to that remark Gauthier complained to Shuttleworth, who refused to speak to Aman from that day forward. Shuttleworth then approached Johnson and told her that "Aman has got to go." In response to this dispute, Jim Newton, the controller, called Johnson and stated that "if this continues we're going to have to come up there and get rid of all of you." When Johnson asked what he meant by "all of you," Newton refused to elaborate. During this conversation, Johnson informed Newton that the racial problems at Cort Furniture were getting out of control.

In meetings with Boswell and Kurtz, Johnson informed Cort Furniture's management that salespeople were harassing and insulting black warehouse employees by constantly telling them "Don't touch anything" in customers' homes and "Don't steal." Johnson also asked why black employees were being paid less than white employees, but was told only that that was a Human Resources Department issue.

When Kurtz became general manager in June of 1991, the harassment apparently increased. Kurtz began to yell at Aman on a regular basis. When he met with Aman for the first time as general manager, Kurtz told her that he "knew all about" Aman, Jeanette Johnson, and Bruce Buchanan. The only thing these three employees had in common was that they were black. Until Aman departed, Kurtz subjected her to careful scrutiny whenever she interacted with white female employees.

Johnson was also the focus of Kurtz's harassment. According to Johnson, Kurtz made it known that he had offered her job to a white employee. Kurtz then made it more difficult for her to perform her job by withholding necessary financial information. On one occasion, as a result of conflicting instructions from Kurtz and Newton, Newton apparently slammed Johnson's door and yelled at her. While he later apologized, Newton admitted that he never treated anyone else in the same manner.

During August of 1991, the racial problems at Cort Furniture appeared to be coming to a head. Kurtz received a letter of complaint about Aman from Stephen Urbish, a customer of Cort Furniture. After another incident between Kurtz and Aman in which Kurtz yelled at her in front of the entire office, he refused to discuss business matters with Aman, and instead informed her that he was receiving complaints about her.

On October 10, 1991, Kurtz forced Johnson to issue a formal warning to Aman, despite Johnson's objection. Although the warning stated that customers had complained about Aman, Johnson could recall but a single complaint, one in which a customer complained that he did not appreciate being called and told that he owed money. Later, Johnson was instructed to give Aman a work plan which required Johnson to spend two hours everyday monitoring Aman. Johnson informed Cort Furniture that it was her opinion that the work plan was unnecessary, but was forced to comply in order to keep her job.

On October 18, 1991, Aman's counsel sent a letter to Cort Furniture complaining of discrimination against Aman. Later that month in a district meeting attended by all administrative, sales and warehouse employees, Kurtz allegedly stated that "the blacks are against the whites," and that if anyone didn't like it at Cort Furniture, they could leave.

In January of 1992, Kurtz once again became angry with Aman, this time for not granting credit approval for a project which would have contradicted prior instructions she had received. In February, Aman resigned after giving four days notice, and filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Aman testified that the hostile environment in which she ...


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