Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Love Gone Bad In the Workplace and Hostile Work Environments

Love in the workplace is typically a bad idea.  And I’m not even talking about people who shouldn’t be “loving” each other because their respective spouses wouldn’t approve (although that can be disruptive to the workplace as well).  When things don’t end well with personal relationships it can be disruptive to the good order of the workplace.  Policies that discourage such relationships and mandate transfers or resignation if the relationship involves a supervisor and a subordinate are strongly encouraged.  But what if you have a workplace love affair that goes bad and the employees remain employed?  A new case out of the Northern District of New York sheds some interesting light on this issue.

In Dole v. Town of Bethlehem, a case decided on April 25, 2017, the court addressed just such an issue.  The Plaintiff in Dole was hired by the employer as a police officer in January of 2014.  She then began dating a fellow police officer in December of 2014.  In March of 2015 the relationship fell apart and the Plaintiff ended it.  In April of 2015, over the course of one week, the male officer with whom the Plaintiff had her relationship sent five (5) voicemails and thirty (30) text messages.  Plaintiff ultimately resigned her position in May of 2015 and later filed suit claiming that her former boyfriend had created a hostile work environment by his unwelcome communications.

In analyzing this case, the court pointed out that the elements of a hostile work environment claim are that (1) the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of her employment and create an abusive work environment and (2) that a specific basis exists for imputing the objectionable conduct to the employer.  The court also pointed out that “[i]t is axiomatic that mistreatment at work is actionable under Title VII only when it occurs because of another employee’s sex, or other protected characteristic.”  The court held that Plaintiff failed to prove any of these elements in this case.

The court believed that the most significant issue in this case was the fact that there was no evidence that the alleged harassment occurred because of Plaintiff’s sex and not because of the end of her personal relationship with her fellow officer.  The court found that Plaintiff’s case lacked evidence to prove that the harassment was the result of her sex, was sex specific and derogatory or demonstrated that the harasser was motivated by a general hostility toward the presence of women (in this case) in the work place.  The court pointed out that its findings do not bar an employee from invoking the protections of Title VII; it just provides that there must be evidence that the conduct of the harasser is based upon gender (or any other protected classification) and not merely a failed relationship standing alone.

In addition, the court held that, to survive summary judgment in a hostile work environment case, a plaintiff must prove that 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.”  The court held that the five (5) voicemails and thirty (30) text messages over the course of one week were not sufficiently severe or pervasive to satisfy the standard of proof necessary to establish a hostile work environment.  In support of this decision, ;the court cited the United States Supreme Court case Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, which states that the standards for judging hostility in the workplace are intended to be “sufficiently demanding to insure that Title VII does not become a general civility code.”

It is important for employers to remember that while this case provides good guidance on what really constitutes a hostile work environment, they must remain vigilant and be aware of potentially problematic situations.  In this case, the court points out that “[t]he standard for redress is a hostile work environment, not an unpleasant one.”  This is good because all too often employees mistakenly believe that if someone is mean to them at work it’s a hostile work environment.  This case establishes that that is not true.  But it also warns employers of the type of behavior which may constitute a hostile work environment and that all failed relationship problems in the workplace cannot be ignored, because they could turn into legitimate hostile work environment claims.  In this case, it was helpful that both of the employees were out on sick leave when the texts and voicemails were sent.  The court pointed out that employers are not liable for nonwork-related, off-duty interactions between co-employees.  This may not always be the case, so be aware of these problem situations and don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.