Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Orange is the new sexual harassment lawsuit

Orton-Bell v. State of Ind. (7th Cir. 7/21/14) [pdf] concerns allegations of sexual harassment levied by a substance-abuse counsel at an Indiana maximum security prison against her co-workers and superiors. The allegations break down into two categories:
  • Other employees and correctional officers at PCF were having sex on Orton-Bell’s desk. When she complained, a supervisor told her he didn’t care as long as offenders were not involved. Another co-worker suggested she clean her desk every morning.
  • Orton-Bell was called “Cinderella” and “Princess” by male employees.
  • She received excessive pat-downs from female correctional officers. 
  • On one occasion, Orton-Bell was required to remove her sweater in the shakedown area so that the sweater could be sent through a scanner. This caused Orton-Bell’s spaghetti-strap camisole tank top to be exposed to male employees and offenders.
  • Male employees made comments about how the pat-downs were “almost like sex for them.”
  • Orton-Bell was not permitted to wear jeans, but male employees were.
  • Male employees engaged in a barrage of sexual banter with Orton-Bell in person and via email, including a comment from the male superintendent that “her ass looked so good that it would cause a riot.” 
The court concluded that the sex-on-desk allegations could not support a claim for sexual harassment because she could not prove the conduct, while egregious and offensive, was because of her sex.
The notion that night-shift staff had sex on her desk because she was a woman is pure speculation.… If there were evidence that the night-shift staff were using her office because she was a woman, and her supervisors were indifferent, that would be enough. If there was evidence that night-shift staff similarly used a man’s office, and her supervisors intervened in that circumstance but not in her circumstance, that would be enough. There is neither. Her supervisors’ insensitive and inattentive responses were callous mismanagement; but absent evidence that this inaction was based on her sex, it did not violate Title VII.… 
The conduct was certainly sexual intercourse on her desk, but that does not mean that night-shift staff had sexual intercourse on Orton-Bell’s desk because she was of the female sex. There is no evidence to indicate that, had her conveniently private and secure, but accessible, office belonged to a man, it would not have been used in the same manner. Accordingly, this incident, while egregious, does not support a hostile work environment claim. 
The remaining allegations, however, painted a different story.
The constant barrage of sexually charged comments, however, was clearly pervasive, offensive, and based on Orton-Bell’s sex.… 
The record does reveal an instance where, in an email conversation with a co-worker named Bruce Helming, she participated in vulgar banter. However, while that may lead a jury to conclude that she was not subjectively offended by the environment, one private conversation via email is not enough for us to conclude, as a matter of law, that she was not subjectively offended by the many other public, unwelcome sexually charged comments in the environment.
What does this case teach us?
  1. Apparently, after-hours sex on workplace desks between co-workers is a real thing.
  2. “Because of sex” has real teeth to it. No doubt, the desk-sex is gross and offensive. Yet, Orton-Bell could not offer any evidence that the use of her desk was for any reason other than the fact that it was located in a private office. Absent evidence that the use of her desk was sex-based, that allegation could not support a harassment claim.
  3. An employee’s participation in some sex-based joking can, under the right circumstances, show that the work environment was not subjectively hostile. One email containing vulgar banter with a co-worker, however, likely is not enough. 
Let me leave you with this thought. If your workplace is sexually charged, it will catch up with you eventually. I cannot fathom the difficulties managing employee behavior in a maximum security prison. Nevertheless, Title VII does not stop at the door just because the workplace is inherently hostile. 

[Hat tip: Indiana Law Blog, via Andrew Cohen]