It takes a lot to establish what the law considers a hostile work environment. A former warehouse manager learned this lesson the hard way when a federal judge dismissed her complaint with prejudice before she even got the chance to take any discovery.
Here are the facts of the case as the plaintiff alleged them in her complaint.
The plaintiff was (and still is) a Japanese-American woman.
Early on in her employment, she received an unsolicited selfie from a male manager.
After that, he called her about once a week, discussed personal matters, and suggested that they hang out socially. Once, according to the plaintiff, he asked her about her Japanese heritage by discussing anime and invoking a stereotype about Japanese people. But nothing sexual.
Another time, when she was trying to get off the phone with him, the plaintiff claimed she told him that she should let him go because it was late. The manager responded, “You could call me in the middle of the night and I would answer.”
The manager did other things that made her uncomfortable.
Allegedly, he made vulgar and inappropriate comments at work, once in her presence. Supposedly, he had a reputation for helping female subordinates who appeared interested in him and disfavoring those who turned him down. The plaintiff claimed that after another female coworker rejected him, the manager had the plaintiff write her up. And when the plaintiff made it clear that she was not interested in him, he began to ignore her work-related communications.
So why isn’t this enough to create a hostile work environment?
A hostile work environment is one in which an employee suffers intentional discrimination because of her sex that was “severe or pervasive.” It takes more than occasional abusive language, gender-related jokes, and occasional teasing to eclipse this high bar. The sexist behavior must literally permeate the plaintiff’s workplace — so much so that it changes the terms and conditions of her job.
Here, the plaintiff alleged behavior that has no place at work. Combined, the comments were “uncomfortable and even humiliating,” but the court did not deem them “sufficiently extreme” to be considered “severe” harassment or discrimination.
And since they were episodic, they were not pervasive either.
Ordinarily, I’d say the plaintiff may have a decent chance to have the lower court’s ruling reversed on appeal — especially because we’re dealing with a motion to dismiss where defendants rarely succeed in employment discrimination cases. However, the deciding judge was sitting by designation from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. So, good luck with that.
As abhorrent as the alleged behavior may have been, I’m bookmarking this opinion to cite later.