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Posted on Friday, July 26, 2013

Sexual Harassment of Female Employee Not Considered Severe Enough Under Title VII

A female employee of Staples in the Roanoke, Virginia area complained after a male co-worker on multiple occasions stripped down to his boxers and changed into his work uniform in front of her in the employee break room, rather than changing in the men’s bathroom.  Some of these changing incidents were witnessed by other Staples employees, both male and female. On the final occasion of witnessing the male employee changing, the female employee ran out of the break room crying while several male employees laughed at her reaction.

The female employee elevated her complaints to Staples human resources, and after the male employee was counseled, there were no further incidents of him changing in the employee break room.  But the female employee did experience some additional harassment following her complaint, including someone cutting up all of the family pictures on her desk, someone stealing her Bible and leaving only one page taped to her desk, and someone cutting the cord to the radio on which she was known to listen to Christian music.  The female employee strongly suspected that it was the male employee who committed these acts against her in retaliation for her complaints against him, but she was unable to prove it.

The female employee sought medical counseling for the stress and anxiety she experienced as a result of the workplace conditions at Staples, and was prescribed Prozac and other anti-anxiety medicine.  Eventually, she took disability leave and then resigned for what she described as her fear of the potential to experience more harassment while working at Staples.  She sued Staples for sexual harassment as well as religious discrimination, and after the close of written discovery and depositions, Staples asked the Court on summary judgment to rule in its favor as a matter of law and dismiss the female employee’s claims without going to trial.

A Roanoke federal judge ruled in favor of Staples and dismissed the female employee’s lawsuit on summary judgment prior to trial.  Without condoning what it called the male employee’s “immature” behavior, the judge noted that the male employee never got completely naked when changing, never made any sexual comments to the female employee when changing, and never physically touched her.  The Roanoke federal judge concluded that the changing incidents were not sufficiently severe and offensive to legally support the sexual harassment claim, such that in the Court’s mind no reasonable jury could conclude that the incidents were motivated by unlawful sexual harassment.  Likewise, the judge was not persuaded that the Bible stealing and radio cord-cutting incidents where pervasive enough to support a religious discrimination claim against Staples.

Declan Leonard is managing partner of the Washington, DC regional business law firm Berenzweig Leonard, LLP. He can be reached at DLeonard@BerenzweigLaw.com.

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