Many employers have policies that restrict two members of the same family, such as a husband and wife, from working together in order to avoid nepotism, a conflict of interest and other issues that could allow a family related dispute to cause an issue at the workplace. Other employers permit two family members to work at the employer if they are in a different department, or they do not supervise each other. A recent Pennsylvania federal court decision in Reiser v. Concordia Lutheran Health, W. D. Pa. no. 16-959 (December 8, 2016, Bissoon, J.) demonstrates that employers who do not have these types of workplace restrictions may be exposed to liability under laws which protect retaliatory action against employees, such as sexual harassment.
In Reiser, the husband was an employee who worked as a Corporate Director of Rehabilitation at a senior and healthcare services provider with several locations. The employee’s wife, the daughter of the Chief Executive Officer, was employed by the same employer as a manager. When the marital relationship ended, bad feelings erupted, causing substantial problems at the workplace.
The wife confronted her husband in his office and asked him to renew their relationship before their divorce was final; when he refused, the wife stated that she would make his life “a living hell.” The wife then engaged in a series of harassing actions at work, including sending text messages using vulgar terms; telling other employees that the husband was an inadequate lover and a poor father; requiring the husband to use a computer program at work to track his whereabouts and the time that he spent using his mobile phone, while no other salaried, management level employee was required to do the same; falsely alleging that the husband was repeatedly staring at her and not working; using the performance evaluation process to accuse the husband of poor work performance, even though the work performance allegations conflicted with the performance data provided by the other facility managers; and reporting the husband to the police for a violating a protection from abuse order and not advising the police that the husband was an employee required to work at the designated location that day, with the intent of causing difficulty at the workplace as it would be nearly impossible for him to perform his duties and comply with the restrictions. The husband complained to human resources about the wife’s conduct but the employer took no action to address the situation and have the wife cease her actions.
In Reiser, the husband filed litigation against the employer claiming that the employer subjected him to a hostile work environment because of his sex. The employer filed a Motion to Dismiss, arguing that the employee’s hostile work environment claim fails because the actions at issue were not motivated by sex, but rather were the result of a family law dispute.
In order to establish a prima facie of a sexually hostile work environment based on gender, an employee must show that the employee (1) suffered intentional discrimination because of sex; (2) the discrimination was severe or pervasive; (3) the discrimination detrimentally affected the employee; and (iv) the discrimination would negatively affect a reasonable person in the employer’s position. For the harassment to be actionable, the workplace must be permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the employee’s employment and create an abusive working environment.
In Reiser, the court denied the Motion to Dismiss and found that the husband alleged sufficient facts to support a sexually hostile work environment claim against the employer by showing that the wife’s actions were sufficiently severe and pervasive to have altered the terms and conditions of his employment, as the wife used her position as a management level employee and daughter of the employer’s Chief Executive Officer to harass the husband because of his refusal to renew their intimate relationship. As such, the court found that the husband sufficiently alleged that he was negatively impacted by the alleged harassment in the form of anxiety and depression and that the actions taken against him would negatively affect a reasonable person in the employee’s position.
Andrew Abramson is an experienced Pennsylvania employment law attorney who represents employees who have been subjected to sexual harassment and hostile work environments. Abramson Employment Law represents clients in Philadelphia, Montgomery County and surrounding areas. For more information on sexual harassment and retaliation see http://www.job-discrimination.com/sexual-harassment.html.