Court weighs in on hostile work environment claim

What if the person who sits next to you at work consistently looked at online pornography during work hours? Would it make you uncomfortable, even if you couldn’t see it?

What if you complained and the boss didn’t address the situation? Do you have any recourse even though you were not directly or personally sexually harassed?

A federal employee recently sued over a similar scenario. In its opinion, the court spelled out some interesting distinctions about when a coworker’s behavior may or may not cross the line into unlawful territory.

The Party Next Door

Sharon Stewart worked for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for over 30 years.

After working in a cubicle for more than three decades, Stewart was used to a certain amount of ambient noise from her coworkers. However, there was some noise that Stewart found hard to ignore.

The man who occupied the cubicle next to Stewart’s liked online porn. In fact, he liked it so much that he spent quite a bit of time viewing it at work. In addition, this coworker frequently invited other male staffers into his cubicle to view his collection. At these times, Stewart would be treated to a chorus of moans, groans, and other noises as the men watched the videos.

Sometimes, the porn-viewing gatherings would begin while Stewart was away from her desk. When she returned, she’d often find a coworker acting as lookout to alert the other men that she was approaching.

Stewart complained to her supervisor on several occasions, but he brushed off her concerns.

Finally, Stewart filed a complaint with the agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity officer. After attempts to settle the matter informally were unsuccessful, she decided to sue, alleging that she’d been subjected to a hostile work environment and several other unlawful conditions. She claimed that the pornography viewing was so severe and pervasive that it affected her ability to do her job. She also claimed that her supervisor failed to protect her from a situation that made her feel unsafe, violated, and “dominated against” in a misogynistic work environment, in which even her boss had admitted to having intercourse in his office.

Stewart’s employer attempted to have the case thrown out. Her employer argued that the mere existence of pornography in the workplace was not enough to denote a hostile work environment. That is, Stewart was free to avoid the offensive material by simply staying away from her coworker’s cubicle.

No Way to Avoid It

But the court didn’t agree with the company’s argument. It refused to throw out the case.

The court pointed out that Stewart’s complaint wasn’t based on the mere existence of pornography. Rather, her complaint alleged that her coworkers’ actions related to the pornography affected her working conditions. In addition, there was no way for her to avoid exposure to the pornography when it was being viewed so close to her work area.

The case may now proceed to a jury trial.

(The case discussed here is Stewart v. Federal Communications Commission.)

Call Us for a Free Consultation

No one should have to feel unsafe at work. If you believe that you’ve been subjected to a hostile work environment, it’s a good idea to speak to an experienced employment law attorney to find out more about your rights.

Email us at murphy@phillyemploymentlawyer.com, or call (267) 273-1054 for a free consultation.