Sunday, November 9, 2014

"Get naked" comment not enough for sexual harassment

It is never easy to predict what conduct a court will consider serious enough to constitute sexual harassment, but telling a subordinate to "get naked" is apparently not enough. A judge of the United States District Court in Boston decided last week that a single comment by a supervisor for a subordinate to "get naked" when he was about to tell her bad news did not rise to the level of sexual harassment. The court explained that while a single incident or comment can sometimes create a sexually hostile work environment, this particular comment was not sufficiently egregious considering the context. The plaintiff continued to speak with the supervisor after the comment was made in a supportive manner.

 While it is usually a jury question - and not appropriate for a court to decide prior to trial - whether conduct amounts to sexual harassment, this decision illustrates that there will always be instances when allegations simply are not serious enough. As I tell all of my clients, no one is guaranteed a hassle-free, sanitized workplace. For harassment to be illegal, it must 1) be based on a protected status (gender/sexual, race, ethnicity, etc.), 2) be serious or pervasive, and 3) alter the conditions of employment. A single comment can make a case, but it has to be something outrageous. The outcome of this case does not surprise me at all. (A retaliation claim brought by the same plaintiff in this case was not dismissed.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Supreme Court to decide pregnancy discrimination rule

The Supreme Court of the United States is set to hear arguments on December 3 on whether employers must treatment pregnancy-related disabilities on par with non-pregnancy related disabilities under federal law. While the issue may seem significant only to legal scholars , it has far-reaching practical effects. The plaintiff, Peggy Young, needed a break from heavy lifting at her UPS job due to her pregnancy, according to her doctor. In response, UPS placed Young on unpaid leave, rather than give her light duty, which is an accommodation it gave to workers who suffered on-the-job injuries. The issue now before the Supreme Court is whether UPS violated the law by treating Young's need for accommodation differently than it would have had she needed the accommodation due to an on-the-job injury. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 requires employers to treat employee with work limitations due to pregnancy the same as similarly-abled employees with limitations due to other reasons.

Many employers, including UPS, have revised their internal policies to require equal treatment of pregnancy-related requests for accommodations. But the issue is one that is likely to recur for many pregnant women and the case should result in a uniform rule. The Supreme Court should decide the case by June.