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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 Degrading & Humiliating Conduct Create A Sexual Hostile Work Environment?

Woman being touched by boss

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII), employees are protected from sexual harassing behavior which is sufficiently severe or pervasive to discriminatorily alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create a hostile work environment.  In determining whether the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create an abusive working environment, courts, as observed by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Smith v. Shehan, 189 F.3d 529 (7th Cir. 1999), “must examine all of the circumstances, including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.”

Having litigated sexual harassment cases for almost twenty years, our Citrus County, Florida sexual harassment lawyers have learned that courts frequently apply the wrong legal standard by requiring sexual harassment victims to prove that the sexually harassing behavior was both severe and pervasive.  In failing to apply the correct legal standard, these courts justify dismissal of hostile work environment sexual harassment claims by declaring that the victim failed to establish that the sexually harassing behavior was sufficiently severe and pervasive as to create a hostile work environment. 

Under well-established law, sexual harassment need not be both severe and pervasive in order to create a hostile work environment.  Rather, in order to establish a hostile work environment sexual harassment claim, a victim is only required to show that the harasser’s conduct was severe or pervasive.  In other words, as explained by the Seventh Circuit in Hostetler v. Quality Dining, Inc., 218 F.3d 798, (7th Cir. 2000), “one or the other will do.”  Because the sexual behavior does not have to be both severe and pervasive, “the more severe the conduct,” as the U.S. District Court for Maryland observed in Reed v. Airtran Airways, 531 F.Supp.2d 660 (D. Md. 2008), “the less pervasive the [victim] need to prove that it is.”  In other words, some harassment may be severe enough to create a hostile work environment even if not pervasive.  A more recent decision, Williams v. Silver Spring Volunteer Fire Department, 86 F.Supp.2d 398 (D. Md. 2015), by the same Maryland federal court is instructive in demonstrating that even an isolated incident may create a hostile work environment if the conduct is sufficiently severe.

Employee Subjected To Degrading & Humiliating Conduct

In that case, Susan Williams (Williams) brought a sexual harassment claim against her employer, the Silver Springs Volunteer Fire Department (Fire Department), pursuant to Title VII.  Williams was a volunteer member of the Fire Department and performed services as an Emergency Medical Technician.  During her employment with the Fire Department, Williams alleged that she was sexually harassed by her supervisor, an employee named Thompson.  Thompson’s alleged sexually harassing towards Williams included sexually suggestive comments, touching her buttocks, rubbing his legs against her, and stalker-like behavior in the workplace.  On one occasion, according to Williams, Thompson walked over to where Williams was seated, straddled her waist, and ground his pelvis into her.    

The Fire Department filed a motion with the trial court seeking dismissal of Williams’ sexual harassment claim.  In its motion, the Fire Department argued that Williams’ sexual harassment must be dismissed because Thompson’s alleged sexual behavior was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment.  The trial court denied the Fire Department’s motion and ruled that it was for a jury to decide whether Williams endured sexually harassing behavior that was sufficiently severe or pervasive as to create a hostile work environment. 

Single Incident Of Harassment Was Sufficiently Severe

At the outset of its opinion, the trial court pointed out that “in hostile work environment cases, the behavior need not be both severe and pervasive.”   In applying this principle, the trial court determined that a reasonable jury could find that “Thompson’s conduct to be so severe as to create a hostile work environment.”  In particular, the trial court found that the incident where Thompson “straddled and grinded on Williams’ lap in the presence of numerous colleagues was so degrading and humiliating” that it, standing alone, satisfied the requisite severity for an objectively hostile or abusive work environment.

In further support of its holding, the trial court also noted that Thompson’s conduct involved inappropriate physical touching.  Where the harassing conduct involves an element of physical invasion, the trial court observed, it is more likely to be considered severe.  Indeed, the trial court pointed out,” inappropriate physical touching is certainly a strong indicator of a hostile work environment.”  “For this additional reason,” the trial court concluded, a reasonable juror could find that Thompson’s conduct in straddling and grinding on Williams’ lap was sufficiently severe to create a hostile work environment.

Free Consultation With Citrus County Sexual Harassment Lawyers   

Based in Ocala, Florida and representing employees throughout Central Florida, we have almost twenty years of experience representing sexual harassment victims.  If you have endured sexual harassment at work or have questions about being subjected to degrading or humiliating conduct at work, please contact our office for a free consultation with our Citrus County, Florida sexual harassment attorneys.  Our employee rights law firm takes 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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