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Was it Horseplay or Sexual Harassment? Worker Claims Male-on-Male Antics Created Hostile Work Environment

August 4, 2016 Hostile Work Environment

Supervisors participated in inappropriate behavior

Joking on the job can certainly be a morale booster … but if it goes too far, serious problems can arise.

An ongoing court case is a great example of how questionable behavior may quickly cross the line into unlawful territory. A supervisor with a penchant for exposing himself at work decided to play a joke on a worker who didn’t appreciate his humor. Now the company is being sued over the incident.

Let’s take a look at what happened here, and how the law may view hostile work environment claims based on same-sex harassment.

An Unwelcome Gift

It was Kevin Hoit’s last day working as a mechanic for the Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA). He was in the middle of changing an air compressor when a much-larger coworker attempted to grab him from behind.

Hoit ran but he wasn’t fast enough. The coworker threw him to the ground, grabbed both of his arms, and sat on his back while Hoit screamed to be released.

Then Hoit’s supervisor approached. He told Hoit that he had a “going away present” for him. The supervisor dropped his pants and placed his bare genitals on the back of Hoit’s head. He laughed as Hoit continued to struggle to break free. The supervisor held the position for several minutes as multiple people, including another supervisor, photographed the incident.

Over the next few days and weeks, Hoit received calls from employees at related facilities who had seen the photos.

He found the incident and its aftermath so upsetting that he had to seek treatment for severe anxiety and depression.

Hoit decided to speak to a lawyer. He sued his former employer, alleging that he’d been subjected to a hostile work environment on the basis of his gender, among multiple other claims. Hoit’s attorneys argued that a company culture of male-on-male harassment was pervasive, and that inappropriate behavior was either perpetrated, condoned, or ignored by supervisors.

The employer attempted to have the case thrown out. It argued that a single incident of good-natured horseplay was not enough to show a hostile work environment.

The employer lost. The court ruled that even though Hoit was only subjected to a single incident of harassment, the episode was severe enough that it could possibly convince a jury that Hoit’s hostile work environment claim was valid. Because some of the employees involved in the incident had past histories of similar incidents involving other male employees, Hoit’s argument that he was harassed because of his gender could also be plausible, the court stated.

The case will proceed to a jury trial.

(The case discussed here is Hoit v. Capital District Transportation Authority.)

What You Need to Know

Generally, hostile work environment claims require the employee to prove that he or she was subjected to conditions so severe that they altered the terms and conditions of their employment.

However, sometimes one single severe incident may be enough to have a valid claim. In this case, the court cited prior opinions in which it was put forth that “direct contact with an intimate body part constitutes one of the most severe forms of sexual harassment.”

The upshot for employees: Hostile work environment cases depend on many factors. That’s why it’s important to examine how the law may pertain to the circumstances of your particular situation.

Contact the Murphy Law Group Now for a Free Consultation

If you believe that you’ve been subjected to an unlawful hostile work environment, it’s a good idea to speak to an attorney.