Few And Far Between: Court Decides Female on Male Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment Case

Assumption That Men Welcome Sexual Harassment Is Sex Stereotyping In Violation Of Title VII

You don’t often see sexual harassment cases in which the woman is the aggressor and the man is the victim. Many people (including some judges) don’t interpret those facts to constitute sexual harassment in violation of Title VII. That’s why the recent case of EEOC v. Prospect Airport Services from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is so important.

What Happened In The Case

Rudolpho  Lamas worked for Prospect Airport Services at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. He worked as a passenger assistant helping passengers who needed wheelchair assistance.

Lamas, a recent widower, started working for Prospect in April of 2002. That fall, Sylvia Munoz, a married co-worker began making sexual advances to Lamas. Munoz repeatedly:

  • propositioned him for sex
  • asked him out
  • wrote him love notes which were sexually explicit
  • performed gestures simulating fellatio when he walked by
  • recruited co-workers who were telling him that she loved him and wanted him
  • approached him in the parking lot at work and gave him a sexually suggestive photograph

Lamas never made overtures towards Munoz and told her and their co-workers over and over that he was not interested – but she didn’t stop.

Lamas complained to his boss but nothing was done. He talked to his next supervisor up the chain, Dennis Mitchell, and gave him one of the “love” notes. Mitchell told Lamas that he “did not want to get involved in personal matters.” Eventually Mitchell told Munoz that he knew she was “pursuing a coworker … and the coworker wanted the advances to stop.”

But Munoz did not stop and the harassment continued. He testified that every time he walked by her there was something -- a gesture, licking her lips suggestively, asking if he “wanted to have some fun”, performing “blow job imitations” -- and that it was embarrassing and causing constant pressure at work.

Co-workers began to speculate that Lamas was a homosexual -- so in addition to having to deal with Munoz’s remarks and gestures, Lamas had to face co-workers remarks suggesting that he was gay. Lamas complained to four different Prospect management officials about the harassment, but nothing was done to stop it. Munoz kept up the behavior.


Lamas felt helpless, was crying, and consulted a psychologist about his distress. His performance began to suffer. Lomas was demoted because of “complaints about job performance “and his “negative attitude.” A few monthslater, in June of 2003, Lamas was fired.

The District Court Decision

Munoz filed a lawsuit in the federal district court in Nevada for sexual harassment. The district court concluded as a matter of law that Munoz’s conduct was not severe and pervasive enough to amount to sexual harassment for a reasonable man.  

In its decision grating judgment against Lamas, the district noted that most men would have “welcomed” the behavior, but Lomas admitted that due to his Christian background he was embarrassed instead. It also noted that Munoz never filed a written report complaining about the conduct.  Lamas appealed.

The Ninth Circuit Court Of Appeals Reverses

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, which includes sexual harassment in the form of a hostile work environment. Both sexes are protected under the law.

In a hostile environment sex harassment claim, the plaintiff must prove that he or she:

  • was subjected to verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature
  • which was unwelcome
  • and sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment

In addressing the each of the elements and burden of proof as applied to this case, the Court found the following:

Conduct of a sexual nature

Whether Lamas was subjected to "verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature" is an "easy question" according to the court.

Munoz propositioned him for sex. Munoz wrote to him that she dreamed of him in a bath, that she gave good “body wash,” and that she wanted him sexually. She performed gestures simulating fellatio, and gave him a photograph of herself emphasizing her breasts and possibly without clothes. His proposition was for sex, not a cup of coffee together. After she recruited coworkers to pressure Lamas, they mocked him suggesting he was homosexual.


In addressing whether the conduct was welcome or not the Court stated:

It cannot be assumed that because a man receives sexual advances from a woman those advances are welcome. …. This is a stereotype and welcomeness is inherently subjective, so it does not matter to welcomeness whether other men might have welcomed Munoz’s sexual advances.

Title VII is not a beauty contest, and even if Munoz looks like Marilyn Monroe, Lamas might not want to have sex with her, for all sorts of possible reasons.

… Lamas unquestionably established a genuine issue of fact regarding whether the conduct was welcome.

Severe or Pervasive

It is well established that sporadic use of abusive language, gender-related jokes, and occasional teasing will not, standing alone, establish a hostile environment sexual harassment claim.

As stated above, in order to establish a violation, an employee must prove that the unwelcome sexual conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.

Whether a working environment is objectively abusive is determined only by looking at all of the circumstances which may include:

  • the frequency of the discriminatory conduct
  • its severity
  • whether it’s physically threatening or humiliating
  • whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance

No single factor is required. In this case, the Court found that:

Monoz’s continued advances created an environment that Lamas reasonably perceived as hostile and abusive. Lamas’ emotional testimony about his co-worker statements about Munoz’s interest in him, his complaints to his supervisors and Prospect managers, as well as his complaints to the EEOC and State of Nevada all evidenced pervasiveness amounting to an abusive work environment.

Prospect Airport’s Response

An employer is liable for an employee’s sexual harassment of a co-worker if it knew, or should have known, about the harassment and failed to take prompt and effective remedial action. According to the Court:

The record established that a jury could reasonably find that Prospect knew about the harassment, and that its response was inadequate. Lamas complained to his employer, but Prospect’s responses were ineffectual, and known by Prospect to be ineffectual. … Prospect’s actions were not enough to establish an affirmative defense for Prospect.

With that, the case was reversed.

Take Away

What was really interesting about the case was the district court’s reaction to the evidence -- that is, this was not a case of sexual harassment because Lamas’ reaction to the sexual advances was not the same reaction most men would have.  Other judges may have a tendency to view the evidence the same way.

This opinion clearly addresses the problem of erroneously stereotyping men in the context of a sexual harassment case in which the man is the victim. It doesn't come up all that often, but when it does, this new opinion for the Ninth Circuit should be very helpful to male employees who find themselves in a similar situation.

 images: www.rollingrains.com   www.stencilease.com

Employee Rights Short Takes: Sex Discrimination, Retaliation And More

Here are three Short Takes about discrimination cases that made the news this month:

Jury Awards Over 1M In Sexual Orientation Discrimination Case

A Maine jury awarded over one million dollars to a man who claimed discrimination based on sexual orientation. According to the Portland Press Herald, it’s the largest award of its kind to date in Maine. The plaintiff, Guy Loranger, contended that he was repeatedly denied promotions by his  former employer, Express Jet  Airlines, because he was gay. Jurors awarded Loranger $500,000 for emotional distress, $500, 000 for punitive damages, and $47,000 in lost wages – though his attorney speculated that the overall award would be capped by the judge at $547,000 plus attorney’s fees and costs.

Maine is one of about half of the states in the U.S. which prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.

D.C. Police Officers Win Retaliation Case

Five police officers in Washington, D.C. won a lawsuit in which they alleged they were retaliated against after filing racial discrimination complaints. The officers claimed that four days after they submitted an anonymous race discrimination complaint, the unit’s employees were told they would have to reapply for their jobs. Over the next two months, the five wrote and filed formal complaints with the D.C. Office of Human Rights and the federal government. Later, each was assigned to a less desirable post. After an eleven day trial, the jury ruled in favor of all five officers and awarded $900,000 damages plus legal fees.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits retaliation against an employee who complains about discrimination.

Transgender Employee Wins Equal Protection Sex Discrimination Case

It’s almost unheard of for a plaintiff to win a case on summary judgment but that’s what happened in Glenn v. Brumby decided by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia earlier this month. In its opinion, the court ruled in favor of a transgender employee whose constitutional rights were violated when she was fired after advising her employer -- the Georgia General Assembly -- of her plans to have a sex change. The plaintiff’s supervisor decided to terminate her after concluding that her transition from male to female would be too disruptive of the workplace.

The plaintiff brought suit under 42 U.S.C. s.1983 claiming a violation of the equal protection clause. The court held that she proved sex stereotyping under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Price Waterhouse decision, and that the defendant failed to come forward with proof that it terminated Glenn for a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason. It said:

The record demonstrates that the plaintiff’s desire to come to work dressed as a woman did not comport with how [the supervisor] believed a biological male should act and that served as a basis for her termination. The record also indicated that [her supervisor] was concerned about negative reactions from others …Neither is an ‘exceedingly persuasive justification,’ and neither explanation is sufficient to survive intermediate scrutiny review.

Section 1983 was enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. Its primary purpose was to provide a civil remedy against the abuses that were being committed in southern states, particularly by the Ku Klux Klan, in the wake of the Civil War. The law is intended to provide a civil remedy for certain violations of federal law by government officials and is often used to prove violations of the Equal Protections Clause of the Constitution.

Men Win Sex Discrimination Appeal In Ninth Circuit

Male officers can’t be excluded from applying for supervisory positions at a women’s prison according to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the recent opinion of Breiner v. Nevada Department of Corrections. The Nevada Department of Corrections adopted a policy of hiring only female correctional lieutenants at a women’s prison after an investigation revealed instances of sexual abuse by male guards.

Four male guards sued contending that the policy violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The state argued that the policy fell within the bona fide occupational qualification exception in Title VII which permits gender based assignment if gender is a “bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(e).

The court ruled in favor of the guards and concluded that:

[The state had] not met its burden of showing a ‘basis in fact’ for concluding that all male correctional lieutenants would tolerate sexual abuse by their subordinates; that all men in the correctional lieutenant role would themselves sexually abuse inmates; or that women by virtue of their gender, can better understand the behavior of female inmates.

Title VII prohibits discrimination based on sex. Usually Title VII cases involve women claiming discrimination because of their gender. Cases where men prevail in sex discrimination cases are unusual and worth noting.

 images:  www.commondreams.org   www.wmich.edu/aviation www.google.com/imgres

Employee Rights Short Takes: Age Discrimination Cases In The News

Here are two Short Takes about some interesting age discrimination cases that made the news this month:

Forced Retirement At Age 70 Is Illegal

Nini v. Mercer County Community College: Rose Nini was a Dean at Mercer Community College from 1982 until 2005 when her contract expired and was not renewed. She was 73 years old at the time.

According to Nini, the college President, Dr. Robert Rose:

  • complimented her on her performance but “made it very clear to [her] that he thought [she] had no right to be working at [her] age”
  • said that employees of her age were considering retirement and suggested she should consider taking early retirement too
  •  told her that people who have been in a job for twenty-five years "lose their effectiveness." 
  • told her that it was her last chance to get an early retirement and leave with dignity.
  • held meetings with department heads in which he made jokes about getting rid of older employees
  • held meetings where several people discussed “age and incompetence and being dead wood”

Nini also stated that she heard from another employee that College Human Relations Director Vanessa Wilson said the College had to "get rid of old-timers and bring in new blood."

The lower court granted judgment in favor of the college holding that the college did not violate the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination because the statute allows an employer to refuse to renew an employment contract of an employee over seventy years of age. The Court of Appeals reversed and the the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed in an opinion issued on June 1st holding that refusing to renew contracts for employees over the age of 70 because of their age violates the New Jersey’s age discrimination laws.

In other words, the failure to renew a contract because of age is equivalent to a termination -- not a failure to hire --according to the New Jersey Supreme Court. This case is good news for the many employees who are employed with contracts that are renewed year to year, or at the end of a certain term, particularly in states with statutory exceptions in discrimination laws similar to New Jersey’s.

Employees Replaced By Younger Individuals Can Prove Age Discrimination In Workforce Reduction Case

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Tin, Inc.:  The EEOC announced last week that Tin, Inc., a manufacturing plant in Glendale, Arizona will pay $250,000 to settle a discrimination case filed by three employees who claimed they were fired because of their age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.(ADEA).

The settlement follows a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in October that reversed summary judgment in favor of Tin and sent the case back to the district Court for trial.

According to the opinion, one of the plaintiffs, Neal, was replaced by an individual 15 years younger as plant manager. The EEOC provided evidence that Neal never received a negative performance review and in fact was told by his supervisors that they were satisfied with his performance.

The company contended that Neal’s younger replacement was better qualified because a facility he had run was profitable.

Interestingly, the Court stated that “the fact that a facility was profitable under one manager and not another does not mean that the two managers qualifications differed.” In addition, according to the Court, there was little evidence of the replacement's success at the plants in question. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit held, the district court erred in granting summary judgment against Neal since material facts were in dispute.

The other two plaintiffs, McGraw and Vanecko, positions were terminated because their positions were eliminated according to Tin.  In order to establish an inference of discrimination in this type of case, the Court stated,  the plaintiff is entitled to show “that the employer had a continuing need for the employee’s skills and services in that his various duties were still being performed.”

The evidence showed that McGraw’s logistics manager duties were redistributed to the production manger and sales manager who were 20 and 23 years younger. It also showed that  Vanecko’ s plant controller duties were given to someone 24 years younger.

In addition, the EEOC presented evidence that the two supervisors with decision making authority over all three plaintiffs made comments from which a jury could find “that they harbored animus towards older workers.” Therefore, the Court concluded that the EEOC provided sufficient evidence from which a jury could find that age was the “but –for” cause of the terminations.

The opinion helps explain the kind of evidence that is useful in proving age discrimination in the often difficult cases of job elimination and workforce reduction.

Employee Retaliated Against for Blogging: Bloggers Beware

We have all heard about employees getting into hot water because of their blogs and online activities:

  • the Delta flight attendant fired because she posted a provocative photograph of herself in uniform without a visible name or logo
  • the Google employee who speculated online about his employer's finances 
  • the Burger King executive who used his middle school-aged daughter's online identity to attack a farmworkers' advocacy group that was trying to increase pay and improve conditions for tomato pickers
  • the computer worker fired because he posted a photograph of his company's loading dock receiving a rival's shipment of computers

There's even a term for it: DOOCED  -- which means getting fired because of something that you wrote in your weblog.

("Blogger Heather B. Armstrong coined the phrase in 2002, after she was fired from her Web design job for writing about work and colleagues on her blog, Dooce.com)

Now we have a new case on the subject from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In Richerson v. Beckon, the Court ruled against a schoolteacher who claimed constitutional protection for personal speech on her blog.

Here's what happened in the case.

Tara Richerson worked as a curriculum specialist and institutional coach for the Central Kitsap School District in Silverdale, Washington.

The job required her to engage in "trusting mentor relationships" with less experienced teachers in order to give them "honest, critical and private feedback."

Richerson wrote a blog which, according to the opinion, contained highly personal and vituperative comments about her employers, union representatives, and fellow teachers.

Although Richerson did not refer to these individuals by name, many were easily identifiable because of the description of the positions or their personal attributes. Here's one of Richerson's blog posts about her replacement:

Save us White Boy!

I met with the new me today: the person who will take my summer work and make it a full-time year-round position. I was on the interview committee for this job and this guy was my third choice ... and a reluctant one at that. I truly hope that I have to eat my words about this guy.... But after spending time with this guy today, I think Boss Lady 2.0 made the wrong call in hiring him ... He comes across as a smug know-it-all creep. And that's probably the nicest way I can describe him.... He has a reputation of crapping on secretaries and not being able to finish tasks on his own.... And he's white. And male. I know he can't help that, but I think the District would have done well to recruit someone who has other connections to the community.... Mighty White Boy looks like he's going to crash and burn

You don't have to be a lawyer to sense that this blog was going to getting her into trouble. Sure enough, when the blog came to light, Jeanne Beckon, the Director of Human Resources received complaints and several individuals refused to work with Richerson. 

As a result, Beckon transferred Richerson out of her coaching position and into a classroom teaching position, claiming that Richerson's blog fatally undermined her ability to enter into trusting relationships as an instructional coach. Richerson sued.

Richerson lost her case in the federal district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Court held that the "legitimate administrative interests" of the school district overweighed Richerson's right of free speech under the First Amendment. According to the opinion:

It is abundantly clear from undisputed evidence in the record that Richerson’s speech had a significantly deleterious effect [on the performance of her duties]. [Her supervisor] provided testimony, not controverted by Richerson, indicating that several individuals refused to work with Richerson in the future.

Common sense indicates that few teachers would expect that they could enter into a confidential and trusting relationship with Richerson after reading her blog. [Her supervisor] need only make a ‘reasonable prediction’ that such disruption would occur; she need not demonstrate that it has occurred or will occur to a certainty... .

Accordingly, the district court did not err in concluding that the legitimate interests of the School District outweighed Richerson's First Amendment interests in not being transferred because of her speech.

The decision is correct with respect to the current state of public employee speech law, according to Paul Secunda, one of the law professors who writes on this topic but the legal test should be changed. As Professor Secunda wrote:

I want to suggest that the Ninth Circuit is right on the current state of public employee speech law, but also want to point out that the most disruptive public employee speech gets the least amount of protection under the Pickering framework. It is almost like we have constitutionalized the heckler's veto in this area of the law and that doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

So what would I do instead, you ask? I would prefer a test which places a heavier thumb on the balance on the side of the employee, as long as the employee is talking upon a matter of public concern, which involves the heart of the First Amendment's protection in the first place. Under this balance, I would let Richerson yap away and let other employees drown her out with their own more sensible counter-arguments.

For those who may be interested, Professor Secunda wrote an excellent law review article: Blogging While(Publicly)Employed: Some First Amendment Implications which can be found at his post on Workplace Prof Blog.

Of course only government employees have limited First Amendment protections for blogging about work. It may come as a great surprise to many that private employees have no Constitutional free speech protection at work.

But, according to Professor Secunda,  private employees may be protected under Section 7of the National Labor Relations Act. (NLRA).  Under the NLRA  employees are free to engage in concerted activities in the workplace for their "mutual aid and protection." Therefore, according to the argument, when employees are blogging about common workplace issues, they are engaged in protected, concerted activity under the Act. It sounds like a very good argument to me.

In addition some states have off-duty conduct statutes which generally prohibit employers from terminating employees for engaging in lawful conduct outside of the workplace. Some argue that these statutes may protect bloggers(depending in part on what they are blogging about).

Other employee bloggers have argued for protection under common law tort theories such as invasion of privacy. Many employers, however, have issued policies making sure that there is no expectation of privacy on the part of the employee with respect to blogging at work.

In sum, blogging at work, and blogging about work, are really two different topics. Employee rights may differ depending on where employees are doing the blogging -- on company time, or on private time -- and what they are blogging about.

In both of these circumstances, employers clearly have legitimate concerns about the content of employee blogs when employee bloggers:

  • reveal confidential/propriety information
  • improperly utilize a company logo or trademark
  • harass, intimidate, and discriminate against co-employees

These concerns can and should be addressed by appropriate corporate policies which protect legitimate interests without demoralizing employees or creating a repressive workplace environment.

In the meantime, since the law is quite undeveloped and the waters uncharted in this area, both employers and employees need to use common sense and tread carefully.


Another Victory for Working Moms

I love the decision of Gerving v. Opbiz, LLC which was decided by the Ninth Circuit a few days ago. Thanks to mmmglawblog for pointing it out.

It’s a great example of  “caregiver discrimination” about which the EEOC issued a report just last week (I wrote about it : Read Carefully to Avoid Caregiver Discrimination), and it's a case in which the caregiver wins.

The case also has a very clear analysis of what kind of evidence allows a plaintiff to get to a jury in a typical gender discrimination case.  

Here’s what happened in the case.

Karen Gerving worked as a sales manager for Opbiz (Alladin Resort and Casino) until she was fired by her supervisor, Jim Lauster.

Gerving filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Gerving’s evidence showed that after she became a stepmother, Lauster:

  • began to give her poor performance reviews
  • told her that working mothers should stay at home
  • told her that she would have to choose between being a mother and a sales manager
  • made similar discriminatory remarks to a pregnant co-worker
  • treated  Gerving differently than a male co-worker when she was reprimanded for making calls to her children while he was not

Because of the discriminatory treatment, Gerving complained to the Human Resource Deparatment. Two weeks later, an angry Lauster tried to get Gerving fired.

It turned out that Luster wasn’t able to fire Gerving until some months later when new management was in place.

In a typical discrimination case, the plaintiff can establish an inference of discrimination if she can prove:

1)   she belongs to a protected class

2)   she performed her job satisfactorily

3)   she suffered an adverse employment action

4)   she was treated differently than a similarly situated employee who does not belong to the protected class

Once the employee establishes an inference of discrimination – what’s called the prima facie case – the employer is required to "articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason" for it's employment action.

If the employer does that, the employee must prove pretext – meaning that the employee presents evidence that the reason given by the employer is not believable or made-up.

In this case, Alladin said that Gerving was fired because of poor performance and because she used profanity in an argument with a co-worker.

Gerving presented the following evidence of pretext:

1)   her performance reviews were good until she became a stepmother

2)   Lauster tried to fire her shortly after she complained to Human Resources

3)   customer complaints were common

4)   profanity in the workplace was common and not grounds for termination

5)   Lauster began discussing Gerving' termination with new management before the events that were cited as the reasons for her discharge

In spite of all of this evidence, the trial court judge threw out the case and granted summary judgment in favor of Alladin Resort.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed stating:

From this specific evidence, a reasonable jury might conclude that Gerving was terminated in retaliation for complaining about Lauster’s discriminatory comments, and that the termination was motivated by discriminatory animus.

 Accordingly, the order granting summary judgment on Gerving’s gender discrimination and retaliation claims is VACATED and this case is REMANDED for further proceedings.

What this means is that the trial court was wrong when it only gave credit to the employer’s side of the story and either disbelieved or gave no credit to Gerving’s evidence.

What it doesn’t  mean is that Gerving wins her case. What Gerving wins is her right to have her case decided by a jury which is what she in entitled to under the law.

So what’s the big deal? The big deal is that federal courts have been throwing out cases like hers in the same way for years – giving credit to the employer’s side of the story and ignoring the employees’ evidence.

Finally, after almost thirty years,  I am sensing that the summary judgment tide against employees in discrimination cases may be turning. I can hardly believe it but I think it might be true.

This case is but one of many examples of summary judgment reversals I have read about in the last several months. The Circuit Courts of Appeal seem to be sending these erroneous decisions back to the district courts for trials with more frequency than ever.

It’s not that it never happened before – it’s just that it seems to be happening more often, and it’s not just from one circuit. Employees are winning.

It’s too bad it takes so long for the victimized employee to see the light of day. Appeals delay the opportunity to get a case in front of a jury for years.

Let’s hope the federal district court bench gets the message and gives the plaintiff her day in court the first time around. We’ll be watching.

 Image: api.ning.com