Crossing the Line: The Ninth Circuit’s Guidelines for Flirting at Work
After months of complaining that a female co-worker had repeatedly harassed him to have sex with her, Rudolpho Lamas’s boss offered a suggestion. Maybe, the boss said, Rudolpho should try walking around the office singing, “I’m too sexy for my shirt.” Everyone at work thought the situation was hilarious: a widower turning down the explicit sexual advances of an attractive woman. But Rudolpho Lamas and his lawyers are not laughing.
When does flirting at work cross the line and become sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Lamas’s lawyers asked. And, does Title VII impose different standards on men and women in sexual harassment cases? Finally, do gender stereotypes have a place in the jurisprudence of Title VII?
Earlier this month the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco answered Rudolpho’s attorneys’ questions in a case involving a man who alleged he had been sexually harassed by a female co-worker in direct violation of Title VII. (E.E.O.C. v. Prospect Airport Services (9th Cir. 9/3/2010).) The Court’s decision is interesting, not so much for its ultimate finding—that Title VII indeed provides equal protection to male and female victims of sexual harassment is well established—but for the way the Court considers socio-cultural stereotypes about gender in the context of a Title VII claim.
Before turning to the drama of E.E.O.C. v. Prospect Airport Services, a few words about the stage on which Rudolpho Lamas’s story is now playing out.
It is illegal to discriminate in the terms and conditions of employment based on the gender of a person under Title VII of the Civil Right Act. Under Title VII, sexual harassment is considered to be a form of sex discrimination.
A Title VII sex harassment claim can be based on two theories of liability: (1) economic quid pro quo; or (2) hostile environment.
In a typical case of quid pro quo sexual harassment, “a supervisor relies upon his [or her] apparent or actual authority to extort sexual consideration from an employee.” Hensen v. City of Dundee 682 F.2d 897 (11th Cir. 1982). “Have sex with me,” says the supervisor, “and you’ll get that promotion.”
In a hostile work environment Title VII case, a co-worker or a supervisor’s gender-biased conduct is so severe or pervasive that the employee’s work environment is severely impacted. “[W]hen a supervisor sexually harasses a subordinate because of the subordinate’s sex, that supervisor “discriminate[s]” on the basis of sex.” Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 US 57 (1986). And, of course, that is what Title VII’s gender provisions guard against: discrimination based on sex.
This month’s Ninth Circuit case was based on the second of these two Title VII liability theories. To maintain a gender-based, hostile environment case, a worker must show that:
(1) he or she was subjected to verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature
(2) the conduct was unwelcome, and
(3) the conduct was “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.” Ellison v. Brady, 924 F.2d 872, 875-76 (9th Cir.1991)
Element 1: Conduct of a sexual nature
Lamas presented evidence that a female co-worker repeatedly asked him to go out with her and on several occasions made explicit references to her desire to have sex with him. She wrote to him, “I’ve been thinking of you a lot lately. I’ve been having crazy dreams about us in the bath tub yeah in the bath tub… Seriously, I do want you sexually and romantically!”
The Court had no trouble finding that the conduct was sexual. “She performed gestures simulating fellatio, and gave him a photograph of herself emphasizing her breasts and possibly without clothes on. Her proposition was for sex, not a cup of coffee together.”
Having established the conduct was of a sexual nature, the Court went on to consider whether Lamas might have welcomed the conduct.
Element 2: Welcomeness
The Court next considered how the welcomeness element of the three-part prima facie case must be proved in a case involving a male victim and female harasser. What evidence does a male victim of sexual harassment need to present to establish that the sexual advances of a co-worker were unwelcome? The short answer is, the same evidence a woman needs to present.
Lamas’s employer apparently argued in the lower court that men are more likely than women to welcome the sexual advances of a co-worker. Even Lamas admitted that “most men in his circumstances” would have welcomed the invitations. So, what did the Ninth Circuit think about this digression into cultural stereotypes? Not much.
The Court was quick to point out that suppositions about what most men wanted at work was itself a stereotype and, thus, was not evidence of anything. “[W]elcomeness is inherently subjective, (since the interest two individuals might have in a romantic relationship is inherently individual to them), so it does not matter to welcomeness whether other men might have welcomed Munoz’s sexual propositions.”
“Title VII is not a beauty contest, and even if Munoz looks like Marilyn Monroe, Lamas might not want to have sex with her, for all sorts of possible reasons.” Though the reference to Marilyn Monroe is a bit old school, the message is clear and contemporary. Men, like woman, have lots of reasons to reject sexual advances by co-workers, including religious beliefs, fear of sexual harassment lawsuits, fear of complications in the workplace, fear of pregnancy or, as the Court explained, fears about facing two decades of child support payments. Or, the Court explained, “[Lamas] might feel that something was mentally off about a woman that sexually aggressive toward him. Some men might feel that chivalry obligates a man to say yes, but the law does not.”
While the Court focused on the subjectivities of welcomeness, it observed that welcomeness has an objective component as well. To hold the employer liable under Title VII, the unwelcomeness must be communicated. The employer must be told about the harassment so it can evaluate and respond to the allegations. “Sometimes the past conduct of the individuals and the surrounding circumstances may suggest that conduct claimed to be unwelcome was merely part of a continuing course of conduct that had been welcomed warmly until some promotion was denied or employment was terminated. That is a credibility issue.”
Element 3: Severe or Pervasive
Title VII is not a “general civility code” either. It is not meant to protect workers against “the ordinary tribulations of the workplace, such as the sporadic use of abusive language, gender-related jokes, and occasional teasing.” Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 US 775 (1998).
Title VII is designed to provide legal remedies to those employees who have been subjected to significant gender-based harassment and discrimination. In other words, it protects employees who have been subjected to sexual conduct that is severe or pervasive.
Some conduct, such as a sexual assault of a co-worker, is severe enough to provide an immediate remedy to a worker under Title VII. A sexual assault immediately creates an abusive working environment.
Less egregious conduct can provide grounds for a Title VII claim, as well, if: (1) it happens often; and (2) it is of such nature that it is offensive to both the victim and a reasonable person in the victim’s circumstances.
Having a co-worker flash a nude picture of himself (or herself) to you one time at a holiday party might be offensive. The one-time, alcohol-driven transgression of a co-worker would not provide grounds for a Title VII claim, however. But what if a co-worker (male or female) constantly displayed pornography on his (or her) computer in a cubicle shared with another worker? What if this conduct was part of an attitude that permeated the workplace with gender bias? If the cubicle mate’s objections and complaints were ignored by the employer, and the conduct continued, it might become pervasive enough to alter the conditions of the workplace in violation of Title VII.
Most Title VII claims involve a series of such increasingly troublesome events, none of which alone would support a strong Title VII lawsuit. But taken together, they often do. So, on a behavioral scale ranging from off-color jokes to things you only see on Mad Men episodes, the case law teaches that the more outrageous the conduct, the fewer times it must occur to be actionable, and vice versa. The courts treat it as a classic inverse relationship.
Putting It All Together
By looking at the all of the circumstances of the workplace in Prospect Airport Services, the Ninth Circuit found sufficient evidence of unlawful sexual harassment to send the case back to the trial court for further proceedings. The female employee’s conduct obviously was sexual. And Lamas made it clear that he wanted the conduct to stop. The conduct was pervasive and had a serious negative impact on conditions at work. Lamas’s job performance suffered. When the harasser told her co-workers about her efforts to seduce the victim, they mocked Lamas and questioned his sexuality. Lamas complained several times to his supervisors about the harassment, but nothing was done.
If Rudolpho Lamas can convince a jury that all of this is true, then he will have proved all of the elements of a Title VII sex harassment case.
Guidelines for Flirting at Work?
In its decision earlier this month, the Ninth Circuit made it clear it does not consider all romantic overtures, or even all sexual propositions, to constitute unlawful sexual harassment
People spend most of their waking hours with other people at their workplaces, so that is where many meet and begin social relationships, and someone has to make the first overture. Some people have more social finesse than others, and many might suggest coffee or a trip to an art exhibition rather than sex, but mere awkwardness is insufficient to establish the “severe or pervasive” element.
Directly propositioning a co-worker to have sex might be incredibly cheeky and against company policy (it could get a person fired), but it does not violate Title VII. “Had Munoz merely asked Lamas to go out on a date, or to see whether they might have a romantic relationship, or straightforwardly propositioned him for sex, and then quit when he clearly told her no, the EEOC would not have shown enough evidence to survive summary judgment.”
Does this mean that acting like a normal, socio-sexual human being at work is legal under federal law? Undoubtedly so; but the definition of normal remains as subject to context, credibility and the uncertainties of the civil litigation system as ever before.
Has the Ninth Circuit now established federal guidelines for flirting at work that are applicable to men and women across the country? Not really. But, what the Court has done is to restate well established principles of law: men and women have identical employment rights, as well as identical burdens of proof, in sexual harassment cases brought under the Civil Rights Act.