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Employer Alert: Tenth Circuit Expands Scope of Hostile Environment Claims in Flashing Case

Last week, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals delivered new guidance as to the type of conduct that can support a hostile work environment claim in Macias v. Southwest Cheese Co.,(10th Cir. August 24, 2015) (https://www.ca10.uscourts.gov/opinions/14/14-2109.pdf).

Hostile environment claims require discriminatory conduct that is severe or pervasive enough to create an abusive working environment. When only one or two incidents of harassment are involved, the conduct must rise to the level of “extremely serious.” Up until now, the Tenth Circuit’s opinions have only addressed satisfaction of this high standard in cases where the isolated conduct is some sort of physical assault. In Macias, however, the Tenth Circuit signaled broader application of the standard by making clear that physical contact is not required for a single incident of harassment to be actionable. Specifically, the court ruled that a male co-worker’s genital exposure to the female plaintiff could support a hostile environment claim, finding that this act “was not only physically threatening and humiliating—if true, it was also criminal. …The environment was objectively hostile, and Ms. Macias subjectively perceived it to be so, fearing that [her coworker] might expose himself to her again or assault her in some way.”

The takeaway from this decision is that every complaint or known instance of sexual harassment must be taken seriously and addressed appropriately – even if it involves only one incident. It appears that the employer in Macias failed woefully in this regard, although the opinion admittedly focuses on the facts alleged by the plaintiff without presenting the whole story. According to the opinion, the plaintiff reported the flashing to her supervisor but company management never followed up with an investigation or response. A second female employee who reported flashing by the same coworker was fired within a week (albeit for unrelated reasons, according to the employer). There’s no suggestion in the opinion of the employer’s investigation of the plaintiff’s report or any disciplinary action against the flashing coworker. Furthermore, the court suggests the employer’s prior knowledge of the flasher’s penchant for genital exposure by noting that, a year prior to the alleged workplace flashings, the same employee had taken a picture of his genitals while attending a company social function and passed the photo around to company managers who were present – including the director of human resources. Had the employer been proactive in addressing this prior instance of inappropriate behavior despite its presumably humorous intent at a party, the company might have spared its female employees the flashings and avoided at least three lawsuits alleging hostile work environment based in part on this same employee’s conduct. The lesson? Turning a blind eye to an employee’s pattern of inappropriate conduct is not likely to end well for an employer.

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