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Employment Law Blog
James Tarquin, P.A
As part of our commitment to assist and educate employees in fighting back against the abusive employment practices of employers, we offer a broad range of information about employment law issues in our employment blog

Can A Female Employee Be Sexually Harassed By A Heterosexual Woman?

Two female colleagues in office

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), employees are protected from sexual harassment by co-workers of the same sex.  Having represented sexual harassment victims for nearly twenty years, our Marion County, Florida sexual harassment lawyers have learned that employers generally advance the same two-pronged attack when defending same-sex sexual harassment cases.  First, unless, in the words of the U.S. Supreme Court in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs., Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998), there is “credible evidence that the harasser [is] homosexual,” employers claim that the harasser is heterosexual.  Second, employers contend that because the harasser is heterosexual, the harasser’s conduct towards the victim was not motivated by sexual desire and, thus, was not sexual harassment.

Woman Harassed By Female Supervisor

The decision by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Watkins v. Illinois Central School Bus, LLC, No. 14-8037 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 16, 2017) is instructive in showing that even if the harasser is a heterosexual, a victim can still establish that the harasser’s conduct was motivated by sexual desire and, thus, constituted sexual harassment.  In that case, Tanya Watkins (Watkins) brought a sexual harassment lawsuit against her former employer, Illinois Central School Bus, LLC (Illinois Central), pursuant to Title VII.  Illinois Central provides school bus transportation services to Chicago area schools. Watkins was employed by Illinois Central as  dispatcher.  In this position, Watkins was supervised by a woman named Sosnowski.

Watkins claimed that she was sexually harassed by Sosnowski while employed by Illinois Central.  Watkins alleged that Sosnowski’s sexual behavior towards her involved sexual advances, such as Sosnowski grabbing her crotch and asking Watkins if she wanted to play with Sosnowski’s genitalia, asking Watkins if she opposed “being with a woman,” and remarking about wanting a woman to impregnate her.  Watkins further alleged that Sosnowski’s sexual behavior towards her involved physical touching, such as touching her nipple, grabbing her breasts, rubbing up against her breasts, and laying her breasts on Watkins’ back.  Sosnowski also allegedly made comments about Watkins’ breasts and nipples and, on one occasion, asked Watkins if she wanted to see her breasts.

Based on the uninvited sexual solicitations and unwanted touching of a sexual nature, Watkins believed that Sosnowski “wanted to have sexual relations” with her.  Two co-workers thought that Sosnowski was gay or at least curious about having a sexual relationship with another woman.  However, Sosnowski submitted an affidavit in which she testified that she is a heterosexual who has been married and has two children.

Female Supervisor Desired Sexual Relationship

Illinois Central filed a motion with the trial court seeking dismissal of Watkins’ sexual harassment claim.  In support of its motion for dismissal, Illinois Central argued that Watkins could not establish that Sosnowski’s behavior was sexual harassment because Sosnowski is a heterosexual and, thus, her conduct towards Watkins was not motivated by sexual desire.  Without evidence that Sosnowski is a lesbian and thus targeted Watkins for harassment based on sexual desire, Illinois Central maintained, Sosnowski’s behavior was nothing more than “sexual horseplay” and insufficient to constitute sexual harassment in violation of Title VII.  The trial court denied Illinois Central’s motion for dismissal and ruled that Watkins was allowed to bring her sexual harassment claim before a jury for resolution.

In denying Illinois Central’s motion for dismissal, the trial court found that, regardless of Sosnowski’s assertion that she is heterosexual, there was substantial evidence demonstrating that Sosnowski’s conduct towards Watkins was “borne of sexual attraction” and a desire for a sexual relationship with Watkins.  In support of its conclusion, the trial court pointed to evidence that Sosnowski touched Watkins’ breasts and nipple, wanted to show Watkins her breasts, told Watkins that she wanted a woman to impregnate her, and raised the prospect of being with a woman with Watkins.  Although none of this evidence “proves that Sosnowski is gay,” the trial court pointed out, “the connotations of sexual interest in [Watkins] suggest that Sosnowski might be sexually oriented toward members of the same sex.”  The trial court also noted that Watkins’ co-workers interpreted Sosnowski’s conduct towards Watkins “to mean that Sosnowski wanted a sexual relationship with [Watkins].”  Based on this evidence, the trial court reasoned, “Sosnowski’s affidavit that she considers herself to be heterosexual does not preclude a jury from finding that she was sexually attracted to [Watkins].”

Free Consultation With Ocala Sexual Harassment Lawyers

Based in Ocala, Florida and representing employees throughout Central Florida, we have extensive experience litigating sexual harassment cases in Florida state and federal courts.  If you have been the victim of sexual harassment or have questions about your protection against sexual harassment in the workplace, please contact our office for a free consultation with our Marion County, Florida sexual harassment attorneys.  Our employment and labor law attorneys take sexual harassment cases on a contingency fee basis.  This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.

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