Single incident can support hostile work environment claim

Sexual harassment claims tend to take one of two forms: “quid pro quo” harassment, where a supervisor offers favorable treatment in exchange for a sexual relationship, or “hostile work environment” harassment, where a supervisor or co-worker engages in offensive or intimidating conduct that makes the workplace intolerable.  For hostile environment claims, courts look for conduct that is “pervasive.” But a recent federal court case from New York shows that in some instances, one or two incidents can be enough to land an employer in hot water.

In that case, a male corrections officer home recovering from knee surgery was using the bathroom when his male supervisor called to check on him. When he returned the supervisor’s call, he claimed the supervisor asked him if he’d been masturbating.  He also claimed that two years later, while he was sitting in a booking room, the supervisor started rubbing his shoulders and told him in very crude language what he would do to him sexually if the supervisor was a woman.

The officer brought a same-sex hostile work environment claim under §1983, a federal statute that allows people to sue public entities, including public employers, for constitutional violations.

The supervisor argued that his alleged conduct didn’t amount to a constitutional violation because it wasn’t sufficiently pervasive and wasn’t motivated by the officer’s sex.

But the judge said the supervisor’s words in the booking room were sexually explicit and aggressive enough that, when paired with his unwanted touching, they could be seen as threatening and creating an objectively hostile work environment. Additionally, the supervisor’s conduct went beyond casual obscenity and thus could be taken as being motivated by sexual desire. Now the officer can bring his case to a jury.

Employers can reduce the risk of such claims through effective workplace training. An employment attorney can help — contact one near you.