GATESGATE . . .

Or don’t judge a book by its cover.

 

By now we have all heard about the case of Harvard Professor Henry Gates and Sgt. James Crowley.  You haven’t?  Where the heck have you been?  Well let me give you a summary.  Seems Sgt. Crowley was called to investigate a 911 call on Mr. Gates’ block.  A woman had called the police to report that she thought she had seen two men breaking into a house.  What had really happened is that Mr. Gates had just come home from a trip to China and found his door jammed.  His driver tried to help him un-jam the door.  That’s when the passer by saw them “trying to break into the house.”  Police were called. Mr. Gates was cranky (he just got off a plane from China for goodness sake, you’d be cranky too).  Words were exchanged between Mr. Gates and Sgt. Crowley.  Mr. Gates went to jail.  The President said something he shouldn’t have said and then everyone had a beer at the White House.  Even then they could not all agree on one beer, they each had something different. 

 

I don’t know what happened at the scene and neither does anyone else.  Except of course Sgt. Crowley and Mr. Gates and they seem to have widely divergent views of the events.  But here is what we do know.  The 911 caller made some assumptions that turned out to be wrong; no one was breaking into any house.  Sgt. Crowley made some assumptions that turned out to be wrong; Mr. Gates was not a robber, it was his own house.  Mr. Gates made some assumptions that turned out to be wrong; yelling at a police officer who thinks you are a crook is probably not that good an idea whether you are in the right or not.  So what should we learn from this?  We all make assumptions based on a bunch of stuff including our background and our job experience.  And often those assumptions can get us into trouble.

 

Happens at work too. In Sassaman v. Gamache, No. 07-2721-cv, slip. op. at 5 (2d Cir. 2009) the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that relying on gender based stereotypes to resolve a sexual harassment matter amounted to discrimination under Title VII.  The defendants came up with a bunch of clever arguments for why what they said (basically “you’re a man and you probably did what she said you did”) was proper.  The court shot them all down and held “From this evidence, a jury could reasonably construe [the boss’s] statement as persuasive evidence that he pressured Sassaman to resign because of his discriminatory assumptions about the propensity of men to sexually harass their female co-workers.”   The Court also was not amused by the lack of an investigation into the allegations.  “The allegation that defendants made minimal—if any—efforts to verify [the accuser’s] accusations could be construed by a reasonable jury as further evidence that Sassaman’s forced resignation occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discriminatory intent.”

 

We’ve talked about this sort of thing before in other contexts like, oh maybe yesterday and the ADA.  The lesson is each circumstance is different, and one size fits all does not fit anyone very well.  You can see Liz Von Eitzen’s excellent article on this case on our website at http://www.wnj.com/publications/detail.aspx?pub=599