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Does Witnessing Sexual Advances Give Claim to a Sexually Hostile Work Environment?

Published:  September 8, 2017

The United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts recently allowed a wrongful termination lawsuit to proceed in a situation where the Plaintiff was not even the alleged victim of harassment. 

A former employee of a car dealership reported that her co-workers relationship (between the Plaintiff’s supervisor and another associate) and behavior in the workplace created a sexually hostile work environment.   After filing a complaint with management about the behavior, the Plaintiff was discharged for poor work performance (declining sales), and failure to properly engage customers who visited the dealership without a prior appointment.  The dealership was able to provide documentation regarding the plaintiff’s less than satisfactory work performance.   The Plaintiff then filed suit.

The dealership filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit based upon the fact that the Plaintiff was not the target of the supervisor’s sexual advances.  The Court opinion stated that although unprofessional, a reasonable person would not find the comments to be so severe and pervasive, that it would give rise a hostile work environment claim considering the plaintiff was not the target of the harassing behavior and dismissed part of the lawsuit.  However, the Court allowed the Plaintiff’s retaliation claim to move forward, reasoning that once the Plaintiff reported the relationship as a form of sexual harassment, the Plaintiff engaged in a protected activity.

The case underscores the need for employers to identify potential retaliation claims prior to discharging employees.  As always, employers should document their employees work performance for a multitude of reasons.  A well-documented employment history can help be the difference between a court allowing a claim to proceed and being able to show that the employee was fired for legitimate work performance concerns. 

If you have any questions about harassment in the workplace and/or how to prevent it, please contact the attorneys at Royal, P.C.

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