Employee Terminated After Sexual Relationship with a Company Owner on Employer Sponsored Trip Has Viable Sex Discrimination & Hostile Work Environment Claims

In order to motivate sales representatives, in addition to commissions, some employers offer other types of incentives, including paid vacations. When employers reward employees with vacations in which company ownership and management also participate, social interaction outside the workplace may create the potential for significant liability and damages. A recent Pennsylvania federal court decision that denied an employer’s motion for summary judgment shows that it is possible for sex discrimination and sexually hostile work environment claims to arise in such situations.

In Getter v. IA-Works, Inc., E. D. Pa. no. 16-953 (December 19, 2016, Beetlestone, J.), a female sale representative was rewarded with an employer sponsored sailing trip in the Mediterranean Sea. The trip included traveling in sail boats with overnight bedroom accommodations. The Plaintiff employee, a sales representative for a manufacturer of products for the chemical, pharmaceutical, and food industries, worked remotely from her home in Pennsylvania. Prior to the trip the employee consistently received positive work performance evaluations. Shortly after returning from the trip, the employee was terminated and she filed litigation in federal court in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, alleging that the termination of her employment was discrimination based on her sex; and that she was subjected to a sexually hostile work environment.

Participants in the sailing included three owners of the employer, the President (father) and two sons, who are also owners of the employer; as well as the father’s romantic partner, the Managing Director who served as the Plaintiff employee’s supervisor. While some of the details were disputed, the Plaintiff employee and one of the sons engaged in a consensual sexual encounter during the trip and the President and Managing Director found about the sexual relationship. On the final day of the trip, the Plaintiff employee apologized to the President for “having sex on a business trip,” but denied making a broader apology about the relationship. The President said, “How can a woman like you, a professional businesswoman, let something like this happen. How can you spread your legs after the second day, after the third day or whenever it happened? I mean if this happened after three months or – what kind of sign is this?” The President then gave the employee an ultimatum, quit working for the company to pursue a relationship with his son or break things off with the son and continue in her sales position. The Plaintiff employee and the son did not see each other after the trip but stayed in touch by texting each other. Three weeks after the trip the Plaintiff employee was fired.

To establish a prima facie case of sex discrimination an employee must show that the employee was a member of a protected class; (2) was qualified for the job, (3) the employee suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) members of the opposite sex were treated more favorably, or that an adverse employment action occurred under circumstances that could give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination. The most straightforward method for demonstrating an inference of discrimination is to show that similarly situated employees who were not in a protected class were treated more favorably (i.e. a man was treated differently than a women). However, if it is not possible to use a specific comparator an employee may provide other evidence to establish a causal nexus between sex and the termination of employment. Once a prima facie case is established, the employer must offer a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the termination. Thereafter, the burden shifts back to the employee to offer some evidence, direct or circumstantial, from which a factfinder could reasonably either (1) disbelieve the employer’s articulated legitimate reason; or (2) believe that an invidious discriminatory reason was more likely than not a motivating or determinative cause of the employer’s action.

In Getter, the court held that the President’s statement that Plaintiff employee’s behavior was inappropriate for a “businesswoman” suggests that he viewed female sexual activity as more problematic from an employer’s perspective than similar behavior on the part of a male employee. In addition, the court held that the evidence suggested that the President harbored “traditional stereotypes regarding the relationship between the advancement of women in the workplace and their sexual behavior.” Thus, the court held that a jury could reasonably conclude that the President’s reaction to the employee’s sexual relationship provides evidence that the termination of employment was based on sex.

The court then considered the employer’s proffered reason for the termination, which included reference to the “inappropriate” relationship with the son, continuing the relationship after vowing to end it, and failing to follow-up on sales duties after the trip. The court found that pretext existed as the proffered reason itself is vague and imprecise. Further, initially the Managing Director was enthusiastic and then perhaps neutral in her attitude toward the relationship and the Managing Director cancelled the only scheduled sales call after the trip. Pretext was also found because the Plaintiff had been advised that the relationship would not impact her employment status. Thus, the court found that the inconsistencies, contradictions, and weaknesses in the proffered reason for termination were sufficient to permit a factfinder to disbelieve the employer’s reason and make a reasonable inference that sex discrimination instead motivated the employer’s termination.

As to the hostile work environment claim, the Plaintiff employee contended that the son’s initial proposition of sex, the President’s comments to her on the final day of the trip and several other events, created a sexually hostile work environment. To prevail on a hostile work environment claim arising from sexual harassment, an employee must show that: 1) she suffered intentional discrimination because of her sex; 2) the discrimination was severe or pervasive; 3) the discrimination detrimentally affected the plaintiff; 4) the discrimination would detrimentally a reasonable person in the employee situation and respond superior (employer liability) exits. A hostile work environment claim can be supported by indirect evidence as the intent to discriminate based on sex in cases involving sexual propositions, innuendo, pornographic materials, or sexual derogatory language is implicit. When a hostile work environment claim is based on alleged harassment by a supervisor, an employer’s liability is established if the harassment culminates in a tangible employment action. (i.e. termination of employment). When the alleged harasser is not a supervisor, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions that led to the hostile work environment.

In Getter, the court found that the President’s conversation with the Plaintiff on the final day of the trip and the son’s (a part owner of the company) initial sexual advances which the Plaintiff initially rejected before the sexual was eventually consensual, could lead to a jury reasonably concluding that there was discrimination because of sex. The court also found that viewing the overall scenario experienced by the Plaintiff employee on the a 12 day sailing trip less than six months into her employment with a family owned company, a jury could reasonably conclude that the employee was subjected to sexual harassment sufficiently severe enough to alter her conditions of employment as within the first days of that trip, Plaintiff was propositioned for sex by a part-owner of the company (who she had never previously met), and the trip concluded with her being berated for accepting that proposition by his father, which represents an intermingling of sex-based discrimination and employment conditions; and that taken in the context of 12 day company sponsored trip in which Plaintiff had little contact with the outside world, a jury could reasonably conclude that this environment, was sufficiently severe as to constitute a change in the conditions of Plaintiff’s employment. The court also found that the conduct would detrimentally affect a reasonable similarly situated employee for the same reason; and that there was evidence that the employee was severely impacted with great anxiety about the entire situation and how it might impact her future. Lastly, as the alleged harassment culminated in the termination of employment, the employer could be liable.

Andrew Abramson is a Pennsylvania employment law attorney who represents employees who are the victims of sexual harassment and sexually hostile work environments. Abramson Employment Law represents clients in federal and state court in Philadelphia, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania and surrounding areas. For more information on sexual harassment see http://www.job-discrimination.com/sexual-harassment.html.

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Filed under Employment DIscrimination, Sex / Gender Discrimination, Sexual Harassment

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