What IS a "spankasauras?" Although new derogatory names for women seem to sprout up all the time, this one is original to say the least. But that's what male co-workers were calling Lisa Salvato, a Philadelphia police officer. The City of Philadelphia moved to have her sexual harassment lawsuit dismissed, but the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that her lawsuit can proceed, because she alleged sufficient evidence of a hostile work environment.
"Sufficiently Severe or Pervasive" Sexual Harassment
In Officer Salvato's case, she alleged that she was called names such as "gabbygail" and "spankasauras," and subjected to substantial harassment that her male colleagues were not. For example, she was routinely questioned as to her whereabouts, denied training opportunities, prohibited from making personal phone calls, and denied requests for a steady shift despite having child care issues. She was also "sick-checked" while out on sick leave, yet no male officers were subjected to such scrutiny. The court determined that this conduct by her supervisors was "sufficiently severe or pervasive" to alter the conditions of her employment.
In order to bring a successful hostile work environment claim, whether based on sex, race or any other protected category, the employee must establish the following elements
- She suffered intentional, unwanted discrimination because of her protected status
- The harassment was severe or pervasive
- The harassment negatively affected the terms, conditions or privileges of her work environment
- The harassment would detrimentally effect a reasonable person in her same protected category; and
- Management knew about the harassment, or should have known, and did nothing to stop it
Hostile Work Environment Harassment Can Be Very Difficult to Prove
It's no secret that claims against employers are constantly rising and, not surprisingly, a majority of claims by employees are for a hostile work environment. A 2010 poll conducted by the Washington-based Workplace Bullying Institute reported that 37% of U.S. workers – approximately 54 million people – feel they have been subjected to workplace hostility. Unfortunately, few situations actually meet the legal definition required to bring a successful hostile work environment lawsuit.
Sexual harassment based on a hostile work environment is different from what is known at quid pro quo sexual harassment. With quid pro quo harassment, a direct supervisor requests sexual favors in return for favorable treatment or protection from being fired. Quid pro quo has been a recognized form of harassment for decades, but courts have only recognized hostile environment sexual harassment since the late 1980s.
Most of us are familiar with hostile work environments that include conduct such as posting pictures of pornography in the workplace, telling "dirty" jokes or making sexually suggestive remarks about other employees. However, not every situation is that obvious. Determining what constitutes a hostile environment or harassment is a fact-specific endeavor, and there is no universal standard as to what constitutes a hostile environment. As such, cases with similar facts have been decided differently by different courts. The issues and potential liability related to claims of hostile work environments are complicated and the laws require various procedural steps that must be taken in order to preserve legitimate claims. Therefore, it is always wise to consult with an experienced employment law attorney if you feel you are being harassed or discriminated against in the workplace.