What conduct constitutes a hostile work environment? How can a municipality be held responsible for a hostile work environment created by its employees? New York’s federal appellate court recently addressed these questions in the case Legg v. Ulster County. Today’s Long Island employment law blog discusses these issues, and how the Court of Appeals decided the case.
At Famighetti & Weinick PLLC, one of the leading inquiries we see as Long Island employment lawyers is “I’m working in a hostile work environment.” A hostile work environment is a legal term of art. While many employees subjectively consider themselves as facing a hostile work environment, the law does not recognize all hostile environments as being actionable in court. In other words, the law does not allow all employees to sue their employers for a hostile work environment.
Among other things, to sue an employer for a hostile work environment, the hostility must be based on a protected characteristic of the employee (such as sex, gender, age), the conduct must be sufficiently “severe or pervasive,” and, at least under federal law, there must be a basis for holding the employer responsible for the actions of its employees. These “elements” of a hostile work environment claim are not black and white issues, so employers and employees often hotly dispute these points in court.
In Legg, the female plaintiffs worked at a county jail. They alleged they faced a hostile work environment based on sex, i.e. sexual harassment. They testified that pornographic magazines were routinely circulated around the jail by male employees and that the male employees used pornographic screensavers on their computers. Testimony also included that male employees would make sexual comments and banter in the workplace and that as to one plaintiff, male employees would comment about her body and talk about wanting to do sexual activities with her.
The plaintiffs complained to supervisors, but at least initially, the supervisors did nothing. Instead, at least as to one plaintiff, the supervisor said that the harasser was required to continue working with her. It was not until later formal complaints were filed that the jail took any corrective action. The case eventually went to trial. The jury found against two plaintiffs, but in favor of a third plaintiff, finding she was subject to a hostile work environment.
The plaintiff and the jail appealed various issues which arose during the case, including several procedural issues. The Court considered and decided those issues, but those points are not discussed in this blog.
As is relevant for this blog, the jail argued on appeal that the jury’s decision finding that a hostile work environment existed was error because the incidents were minor and took place over too long a period of time. The appellate court reviewed the rules concerning how hostile work environment claims should be evaluated. The Court noted that factors to be considered are the totality of circumstances, the frequency of conduct, the severity of the conduct, and whether the conduct is physically threatening or humiliating.
The Court had no difficulty finding the conduct here satisfied the standard. The court noted that there was a pervasive presence of pornography in the workplace and, most importantly, a co-worker commented about the plaintiff’s body and made other sex based conduct directed at plaintiff. The Court distinguished a past case where the conduct was less severe, including minor pranks and an isolated comment.
The Court then turned to the requirement that there be a basis to impute the conduct to the County. Here, the Court reiterated the rule that the employer is liable if it fails to provide a reasonable avenue of complaint about discrimination or if it failed to exercise reasonable care in knowing about or taking corrective action against the conduct. For this point, the Court noted that the County took no action at all upon the plaintiff’s initial complaint, then it mishandled a second complaint. Based on these facts, the jury reasonably determined that the County failed to adequately respond to the plaintiff’s complaints.
The final issue addressed by the Court is a complicated area of Constitutional law. The plaintiffs sued under both Title VII, a federal law which prohibits employment discrimination, and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution which requires equal protection under the law. It is well settled that the 14th Amendment bars employment discrimination in public workplaces, in much the same way as Title VII.
One difference between Title VII and 14th Amendment discrimination claims is who can be used. Typically, only employer entities can be sued under Title VII, and the reverse is true under the 14th amendment- that only individuals can be sued. But, municipalities can be sued under the 14th Amendment where the plaintiff shows that a custom and policy of the municipality caused the discrimination. This is generally hard to prove.
In Legg, the appellate court ruled that where a municipality acquiesces in conduct creating a hostile work environment, the plaintiff may establish the municipality’s liability under the Constitution. In Legg, the Court determined that the workplace was so permeated with discriminatory ridicule or insult that the County could be liable.
In sum, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has reaffirmed some important principles of employment discrimination law in New York. First, pornographic material has no place in a workplace and its presence can constitute a hostile work environment, particularly when accompanied by sexual comments directed at female employees.
Second, the Court’s ruling emphasizes that employers are responsible for taking decisive and swift action to correct a hostile work environment, when receiving notice (or should have reasonably known) that a hostile work environment exists in its workplace. Finally, the Court suggested that when a municipality acquiesces in conduct constituting a hostile work environment, it may be liable under the Monell theory of Constitutional liability.
If you have questions about Title VII, Monell liability, the Fourteenth Amendment, or hostile work environments, including sexual harassment, contact a Long Island employment lawyer at Famighetti & Weinick PLLC. Our phone number is 631-352-0050.