No Hugs For You: 9th Circuit Says a Supervisor’s Hugs Could Create a Sexually Hostile Work Environment

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05/30/2017

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No Hugs For You: 9th Circuit Says a Supervisor’s Hugs Could Create a Sexually Hostile Work Environment

 By: Rebecca Hause-Schultz

In Zetwick v. County of Yolo, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that a supervisor’s frequent hugging of a subordinate could potentially create a sexually hostile work environment. In that case, Plaintiff was a correctional officer who had worked for the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department since 1988. The Plaintiff contends that from 1999 to 2012, she was subjected to over a hundred unwelcome hugs and at least one unwelcome kiss from her boss, the elected Sheriff, and that he hugged other women and did not hug male employees. Although Plaintiff was not terminated or denied promotion, she claimed that the Sheriff’s conduct caused her to be stressed and suffer from anxiety, and made it difficult for her to go into work.

The County and the Sheriff moved to have the case dismissed, arguing that no reasonable juror would determine that the Sheriff’s conduct was objectively “severe or pervasive” enough to establish a hostile work environment.  They presented evidence that the Sheriff’s hugs were common in the workplace and included male employees as well as female employees.  They emphasized that most of the incidents were: at parties involving Sheriff’s Department employees, awards banquets, GED graduations for prisoners, and some training sessions; were non-sexual in nature; and did not occur when the Sheriff and Plaintiff were alone. They also pointed out that the Sheriff did not become aware of Plaintiff’s dislike of his hugs until she filed an administrative leave claim in early 2012.

The District Court agreed with the County and the Sheriff that the alleged conduct was merely harmless, socially acceptable conduct, and granted their motion, dismissing the case. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court’s dismissal by holding that a jury could reasonably find that the alleged hugs, in the kind (chest to breast), number, frequency, and persistence described by Plaintiff, could be sufficiently pervasive to constitute a hostile environment. In other words, a reasonable jury could find, from the frequency of the hugs, that the Sheriff’s conduct was out of proportion to ordinary workplace socializing and had become abusive. Also relevant was the fact that the Sheriff was her supervisor, and the acts of supervisors have a greater power to alter the environment than acts of co-employees generally.

COUNSEL TO MANAGEMENT:

Harassment is not always obvious and is frequently a matter of dispute. In this case, while the Supervisor and others may have seen the hugs as welcome and friendly, Plaintiff obviously did not. It is important for employers to strictly enforce their anti-harassment policy, have a reporting system in place where employees can report harassment, and look out for conduct (particularly physical touching) that could be perceived as harassment. The reporting system should instruct employees to report harassment immediately and, importantly, give employees the option of reporting the harassment not only to their supervisor, but to HR or someone who is not their direct manager, in the event that the supervisor is the alleged harasser (as in the Zetwick case). If you have questions about your Company’s anti-harassment policy or questions relating to how to handle allegations of harassment when they come up, please contact the Saqui Law Group. 

 

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