Hostile or Abusive Work Environment Sufficient for Sexual Harassment Claim, Says Federal Appeals Court
A federal appeals court has reversed a lower court’s dismissal of an employee’s claim against her employer for sexual harassment. The appeals court held that her allegations that the employer’s inappropriate statements, although not directly sexual, contained enough inappropriate innuendo that her case should be allowed to proceed to trial.
The employee, who worked for Citizens Bank, sued her supervisor for retaliation and sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, color, national origin, or religion. It is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and similar provisions are enforceable under Massachusetts law pursuant to Chapter 151B of the Massachusetts General Laws, which is enforced by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD).
The employee, a Chinese woman, said that the supervisor made a number of statements to her. He related to his view that Asian women are obedient. He discussed how his Thai au pairs did not were sufficiently revealing swimsuits, and asked what type of swimsuit she wears. He asked where she enquired to look for a boyfriend. He offered to teach her golf. He made obscene gestures related to engaging in intimacy. And he made indirect suggestions of a relationship with her.
When she did not respond to the supervisor’s advances, he gave her negative performance reviews, ultimately resulting in termination of her employment.
The lower court judge from the District of Massachusetts dismissed the employee’s claim on the basis that there was no overt sexual conduct. The employee appealed, and the First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal.
The Court of Appeals explained that Title VII prohibits sexual harassment, which includes sex-based discrimination that creates a hostile or abusive work environment. The employer’s conduct fell within the criteria for a hostile work environment. A reasonable jury could draw the conclusion that the employer’s conduct was offensive.
Additionally, although the employer produced documentation showing that there were issues with the employee’s performance, the Court of Appeals held that this was not sufficient to overcome her allegations of sexual harassment because there were nevertheless “weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions” in the employer’s rationale for firing her.
The case has been sent back to the lower court and is expected to proceed to trial.
The case is here: Tang v. Citizens Bank