Friday, December 7, 2007

Has the time come for a workplace porn audit?


Last week I wrote about the importance of monitoring workplace technology in the context of a Second Circuit case, which held that the mere presence of pornography in the workplace can be enough to create an objectively hostile work environment (Computer awareness should be important part of harassment policies and training). This lesson hits a little closer to home today, as the Cuyahoga County Court of Appeals has reversed a trial court's grant of summary judgment in a sexual harassment case. In Johnson v. Olmsted Township, the plaintiff, a female police department employee, claimed that a male co-worker had once shown her a pornographic magazine and had once comments about her putting her legs behind her head. Based on those two isolated incidents, the appellate court found that a jury question existed on the severity or pervasiveness of the alleged conduct:

A single act of sexual harassment may be sufficient to create a hostile work environment if it is such a nature and occurs in such circumstances that it may reasonably be said to characterize the atmosphere in which a plaintiff must work. David subjected Johnson to the pornographic magazine in the company of other male officers. The episode a few months later where Davis commented on his perception of Johnson's agility was also made in the presence of male coworkers. The presence of male coworkers makes Davis' act humiliating, which can be considered severe.

If an appellate court is going find two isolated incidents sufficient to hold a jury trial in a harassment claim, perhaps companies have to rethink internal initiatives to head off lawsuits involving porn in the workplace. The headline may be tongue-in-cheek, but the message is real - courts will be more prone to give employers a pass in cases where they acted proactively in trying to rid the workplace of porn than where they stuck their heads in the sand and failed to sanitize the environment.

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