Employer May be Liable for Sexual Harassment by Coworkers Who are not Supervisors

While an employer is not automatically liable for sexual harassment at the workplace when a coworker engages in sexual harassment, where the employer has notice of the sexual harassment and fails to take action to stop the harassment, the employer can be found liable. Employers are also liable for retaliation when they take action against employees for reporting sexual harassment.

In Rosh v. The Gold Standard Café at Penn, Inc., E. D. Pa no. 16-1676 (December 19, 2016, Surrick, J.), the employee, a restaurant prep cook alleged that she was sexually assaulted on multiple occasions. A co-worker grabbed her in the crotch area, made attempts to touch the employee’s breasts, consistently stared at her breasts, and intentionally touched the employee; and another co-worker attempted to touch employee and also made multiple sexually inappropriate comments.The employee told the coworkers to stop however, the conduct continued. The employee reported the sexual harassment to the two co-owner/managers who advised they would speak to the coworkers but the sexual harassment continued. Thereafter, the employee sent an email to the managers detailing the sexual harassment and also followed up with a letter. Thereafter, an owner/manager stopped speaking to the employee, reduced her work hours and told the employee to try to stop the harassment on her own. Shortly thereafter, the employee resigned because the employer refused to address her reports of sexual harassment and instead retaliated against her. The employee filed causes of action for a sexually hostile work environment, constructive discharge of employment and retaliation for reporting the harassment and the employer filed a Motion to Dismiss the Complaint.

In order for an employee to establish a sexually hostile work environment claim, an employee must prove that: (1) she suffered intentional discrimination because of her sex; (2) the discrimination was severe or pervasive; (3) the discrimination detrimentally affected her; (4) the discrimination would detrimentally affect a reasonable person of the same sex in that position; and (5) the employer is subject to liability under the theory of respondeat superior. In considering whether the work environment was hostile, courts must consider the totality of the circumstances, including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.

When the harasser and victim are of the opposite sex, there is a reasonable inference that the harasser is acting because of the victim’s sex. With regard to meeting the severe or pervasive standard, simple teasing, offhand comments and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not typically amount to discriminatory changes in the terms and conditions of employment. If management-level employees have actual or constructive knowledge about the existence of a sexually hostile environment and fail to take prompt and adequate remedial action, then an employer will be held directly liable for an employee’s sexual harassment. Once an employer has knowledge of the sexual harassment, it must take prompt and adequate actions reasonably calculated to prevent further harassment.

In Rosh, the court found that the employee had sufficiently plead sexual harassment as the grabbing of a female body parts and sexually inappropriate comments demonstrate that the harassment was because she was female; and the conduct was severe, and does not constitute simple teasing, as any reasonable person would find the actions hostile and abusive. Further, the respondeat superior (employer liability) standard was met because the employee informed the co-owners of the ongoing sexual harassment on at least four separate occasions and other there than speaking with the coworkers, the employer did not take any additional steps to remedy the situation; and instead stopped speaking to the employee and told her to fix the situation on her own.

A constructive discharge occurs when an employee resigns because of unendurable working conditions. An employee must show that the employer’s actions were serious enough to change the employee’s compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment and make continuing employment with the employer so unpleasant or intolerable that a reasonable person would resign. An employee does not have to show that the employer specifically intended to force the employee to quit, only that the employer knowingly permitted the unpleasant or intolerable discrimination. In Rosh, the court found that the employee demonstrated that her work environment was sufficiently unpleasant and intolerable so that a reasonable person would resign as she was repeatedly harassed and grabbed, and that she was afraid while at work; and the employer did nothing to solve the problem.

Both Title VII (the federal law) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) prevent employers from retaliating against employees for reporting instances of sexual harassment. To state a retaliation claim, an employee must establish that: (1) the employee engaged in protected activity; (2) the employer took an adverse employment action against the employee; and (3) there was a causal connection between the employee’s participation in the protected activity and the adverse employment action. An employee must prove causation either through (1) an unusually suggestive temporal proximity between the protected activity and the allegedly retaliatory action, or (2) a pattern of antagonism coupled with timing to establish a causal link. Temporal proximity exists if an employee alleges a retaliatory action that occurred within a short time after the employee’s last protected activity.

In Rosh, the court found that the employee reasonably believed that her employer was required to take steps to prevent the sexual harassment and the hostile work environment, the employee reported the conduct at issue and she also stated that she would report the sexual harassment to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) if the sexual harassment did not stop. The court held that the employee had a reasonable basis to believe that the employer was violating its duties under the law. Further, the court found that after reporting the ongoing sexual harassment, management stopped speaking to the employee and reduced the employee’s scheduled work hours; actions that would dissuade any reasonable worker from reporting a charge of sexual harassment. As the retaliatory events occurred within five weeks from the time that the employee wrote a letter to management stating that if the employer did not take action in response to the sexual harassment the employee would report the employer to the PHRC; and after she complained again about the ongoing sexual harassment, the court found the temporal proximity requirement was satisfied.

Abramson of Employment Law represents Pennsylvania employees subjected to sexual harassment and retaliation by their employers. For more information on sexual harassment and retaliation see http://www.job-discrimination.com/sexual-harassment.html.

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Filed under Employment DIscrimination, Hostile Work Environment, Retaliation, Sexual Harassment

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