By the power of Title VII! Woman called “He-Man” loses gender-bias claim

Look, no one forced you to read this. Or click on that video.

Hey, happy Thursday to you from The Employer Handbook. Now, with 100% fewer penis trees.

(Yeah, sorry about that. If you got yesterday’s post via email, the free stock image I used — from a database of pictures I’ve utilized many times in the past — contained a questionable palm tree. I missed it. But, it was questionable enough that I got two emails from readers — neither of whom seemed particularly offended, but still. Had there been two coconuts lying on the sand, I surely would’ve been called into HR. And, poor Jeff Nowak. I can only imagine who signed up for his webinar from via my blog. Oof!)

From my shame to my shameful childhood.

Ok, now let’s talk about He-Man.

Along with The Transformers and Tom and Jerry, He-Man was right up there as a favorite cartoon growing up. So, of course, since I’ve barely matured since then (scroll up for Exhibit “A”), when I came across this recent opinion, I had to write about it.

This case involves a female school teacher who alleges that her former employer discriminated against on the basis of her gender, among other protected classes. The genesis of her gender-bias claim is an anonymous letter that the plaintiff claimed was actually authored by her female supervisor. The author of the letter claimed to be the mistress of the plaintiff’s husband and wrote that the plantiff “look[s] like a he-man with that big, donkey ass.” The employer’s EEO officer determined that the plaintiff’s allegations concerning the letter and some other complained-of conduct amounted to “a generalized complaint of misconduct,” rather than sexual harassment. Ultimately, the plaintiff sued in federal court.

In its analysis, the court noted that, for the plaintiff to  prevail on a “hostile work environment” sexual harassment claim under Title VII, she must prove that the harassment was: (1) unwelcome, (2) based on sex, ( 3) sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment, and (4) imputable to her employer. Then, while noting that same-sex harassment can be actionable under Title VII, the court concluded that the plaintiff had failed to demonstrate that her supervisor targeted her because of her sex:

There is no evidence that Young’s actions were based on her sexual interest in Lewis. Additionally, the plaintiff presents no evidence that Young was generally hostile towards other women at the school or that she treated women differently from men. Although the plaintiff has alleged facts that Young acted inappropriately by reprimanding her in front of her colleagues and by sending her an anonymous letter claiming to be her husband’s mistress and insulting her appearance, Lewis has not shown that Young took those actions because of Lewis’s gender. Young’s description of the plaintiff’s appearance as “a he-man with that big, donkey ass” implies that, in Young’s view, Lewis is not sufficiently feminine, but “it is not enough that the challenged conduct be sex-specific.”…Furthermore, the evidence indicates that Young’s harassment of Lewis was motivated by her general hostility towards Lewis and dissatisfaction with her job performance, rather than Lewis’s sex. 

Although the court didn’t address the other hostile work environment factors, it would appear that the few complained-of actions were neither severe nor pervasive enough to alter the plaintiff’s working conditions.

Takeaways for employers.

  1. Take this He-Man poll.
  2. Defending a lawsuit by raising the same arguments as the defendants here is fine. But, to head off a lawsuit altogether, make sure that you are taking all complaints of discrimination seriously. Otherwise, small incidents tends to repeat and, eventually, alter the victim’s working conditions.
  3. Take the poll, would ya!
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