The words “hostile work environment” get tossed around a lot by lawyers. But, just what constitutes a hostile environment that’s actionable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is uncertain. It’s sort of a “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it” standard. That standard may work at the two extremes (clearly egregious vs. obviously benign behavior), but it can be difficult to apply in the grey zone.
The First Circuit has weighed in on this issue with an important decision, reported in today’s Boston Globe, reversing summary judgment against an employee of the Town of Grafton who claimed a hostile work environment based on the assertion that her supervisor repeatedly stared at her breasts. The First Circuit saw the behavior in this case differently than the trial judge, who had dismissed the case.
Quoting from the Boston Globe article:
The three-member appeals panel said that Billings’s sexual harassment suit had raised serious claims, including that Connor had created a hostile work environment by staring at the breasts of several town employees and, after Billings complained to the Board of Selectmen around 2001, had retaliated against her by transferring her to another municipal job.
“Taken in the light most favorable to Billings, the evidence depicts a supervisor who regularly stared at her breasts for much of the 2 1/2 years they worked together,” the appeals court said in its 42-page decision.
The court said a reasonable jury could find that the staring had interfered with Billings’s work performance or changed the terms and conditions of her employment.
This case appears to open the door wider to hostile work environment claims. You can read the full case here.