Sexual Emails from Employer Can Constitute Sexually Hostile Work Environment

In a recent New York case, the New York Appellate Division held that an employer’s sending of sexually offensive emails to both male and female employees, nonetheless, subjected female employees to differential treatment and thus could support hostile work environment claim under New York City Human Rights Law.[1] [2]

The Allegations

The plaintiffs in the action were three women who worked in the defendant’s medical office as medical clerks and physician’s assistants, respectfully.  During the latter half of 2006, the employer sent a series of offensive and sexually explicit emails to all of the staff, including both the male and female employees.  Some examples of the offensive content in the emails include: a depiction of headless female body attached to a buttock and pair of legs, described as “The Perfect Woman;” a short rated-R movie scene of a woman using a vibrator; and a moving image of snow sculpture in the shape of a penis shooting out snow balls.[3] 

In addition to the emails, plaintiffs further alleged that the employer told her that she should get breast implants, that the employer pointed out to her on one occasion that her underwear was exposed but told her that she should not have adjusted her pants because he had been “enjoying” himself, that the employer placed whipped cream on the side of his mouth and asked her if “this looked familiar”, that the defendant repeatedly told her that she needed to lose weight, and that the employer once touched her rear end and told her she needed to “tighten it up.”[4]

The Court’s Decision

The United States Supreme Court, in cases brought under Title VII, has held that a hostile work environment exists “[w]hen the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment”[5] “Whether an environment is ‘hostile’ or ‘abusive’ can be determined only by looking at all the circumstances. These may include the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.”[6]

While the employer argued that the women were not treated differently based on their sex because both women and men were exposed to the emails distributed by him, the Court recognized that taken in context with the inappropriate sexual comments and advances, the employer emails were sent in an effort to specifically provoke a reaction from the women in the office and single them out from the male employees.  The Court concluded, “the comments and emails objectifying women’s bodies and exposing them to sexual ridicule, even if considered “isolated,” clearly signaled that defendant considered it appropriate to foster an office environment that degraded women.”[7]

The lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C., are experienced and knowledgeable employment law practitioners and assist clients in New York, Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, Westport, and elsewhere in Fairfield County. Should you have any questions about Title VII and workplace discrimination or any other employment law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut, by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

 


[1] Hernandez v. Kaisman, 957 N.Y.S.2d 53, 56-57 (App. Div. 2012)

[2] New York Human Rights Law, http://www.nyc.gov/html/cchr/html/ch1.html#7

[3] Hernandez at 56

[4] Id.

[5] Harris v. Forklift Sys., 510 U.S. 17, 21, 114 (1993)

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 57