Can Rumors and Employee Drama Constitute a Hostile Work Environment?

In an interesting case out of New York, an employee claims she was terminated after complaining about sex-related rumors about her circulating in the workplace. Although the harassing sexual comments were made by other female employees, the federal court decided that the comments were still actionable.

Baez v. Anne Fontaine USA, Inc.

Baez was a Regional manager for the clothing retailer. Three managers whom Baez supervised allegedly spread rumors about Baez that she wore a revealing blouse without a bra to a company meeting, thereby exposing herself to the CEO. When Baez became aware of the rumors, she reported them to company officials. The official’s response was somewhat disconcerting. Baez was told:

[R]egarding the content of the rumor/gossip, you either need to be strong and say ‘so be it, I make my own fashion and life choices…’ Or, if the content bothers you, you need to adjust what you are doing to prevent such rumors/gossip, but you can’t prevent people from having their opinions.

Baez was terminated shortly thereafter.

Retaliatory termination following complaints of hostile work environment

When Baez was terminated, she unilaterally taped the termination meeting. She was given three reasons for her termination by the CEO of the company, one of which included Baez being connected with “too much drama.” Baez filed the lawsuit.

The Court’s decision on the hostile work environment claim

Although the court found that Baez’s claim could have been stronger if the harassing comments had been made by male instead of female employees, it found “no legal reason why the gender” of the commenters would change the analysis. The court stated in its opinion that “even a single comment that objectifies women . . . made in circumstances where that comment would, for example, signal views about the role of women in the workplace [may] be actionable.”

Evidence of retaliation

The district court also found that the short time period between Baez’s complaint and her termination for being associated with “too much drama” created a factual dispute that would preclude dismissing her retaliation claim. Despite the fact that the employer in this case articulated two legitimate business reasons for Baez’s termination, the court stated that retaliation did not have to be the only reason for her termination. Instead, she needed to show “only that the adverse action would not have occurred in the absence of the retaliatory motive.”

Failure to properly investigate claims of sexual harassment

The district court also found an issue of material fact regarding whether Baez’s complaint was adequately investigated and whether the company responded with the appropriate disciplinary action.

Ultimately, the context of the rumors concerning Baez’s sex and the use of the word “drama”- a term more often applied to a woman’s behavior, among other things, combined to create sufficient disputed facts requiring a jury trial.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880

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