Reinstating the sexual harassment lawsuit of two casino cocktail waitresses, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Oct. 1 that a Mississippi federal court erred in substituting its own determination of witnesses’ credibility for that of the jury. Hatley v. Hilton Hotels Corp., No. 01-60289.

Lori Hatley and Habakkuk Cooper sued Hilton Hotels and Bally’s Olympia, alleging sexual harassment by their supervisors, including “inappropriate touching” and “physical aggression.” The women alleged sexual discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Mississippi law.

A Mississippi federal jury returned verdicts for the waitresses, and found damages of $150,000 for each. However, the trial court rejected the jury’s verdict, granting Hilton and Bally’s judgment as a matter of law. The trial court held that Bally’s had taken reasonable care to prevent and correct the harassment, and that the waitresses had “unreasonably failed to take advantage of preventive or corrective opportunities offered by Bally’s.” The trial court held also that the waitresses failed to prove that any harassment was severe or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of their employment.

Reversing the trial court, the 5th Circuit held that judgment as a matter of law should be granted only when “there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue.”

The court held that a reasonable jury could have found a sufficient basis, noting the testimony of four other waitresses complaining of harassment by the same supervisors, and testimony of another supervisor, who said previous complaints had “fallen through the cracks” when reported to management. The 5th Circuit said, “The district court could not substitute its own determination of the witnesses’ credibility for that of the jury; in doing so, it erred.”