Employment Law Daily Claims of ‘boys’ club’ atmosphere with sexist comments, strippers, and porn survive dismissal
News
Thursday, August 18, 2016

Claims of ‘boys’ club’ atmosphere with sexist comments, strippers, and porn survive dismissal

By Brandi O. Brown, J.D. A female employee who described a work environment replete with sexist comments, pornography, minimization of female workers, and at least one daytime visit by strippers—as well as her own belittlement and eventual termination—may proceed in part with her suit against two corporate defendants, a federal district court in New York ruled. Although the employee’s state-law claims and claims against individual defendants were dismissed, the court found more than enough reason to deny the defendants’ motion to dismiss her Title VII claims of sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation (Conforti v. Sunbelt Rentals, Inc., August 15, 2016, Spatt, A.). Lone female manager. Hired in 2001 by On-Site Energy Co., Inc., the employee was the only female management-level employee during her tenure with the employer. When she was hired, the vice president of the company’s service department was the owner’s son; another son was the vice president of the sales department. The employee alleged that management made statements to the effect that "a female’s place is behind that of men[]" and it carried this philosophy by paying female employees less than men and offering them fewer benefits and perks. In addition, she alleged the employer maintained an atmosphere in which the management employees propositioned female workers, viewed porn during the work day, and even called in female strippers on one occasion. She alleged that the employer failed to implement any policies or procedures to deter sexual harassment and discrimination. Those who did complain were retaliated against. On Site was acquired by Sunbelt Rentals, Inc. in 2014, and the employee’s title was changed to assistant manager. Her disparate treatment continued, however: She was denied access to codes required for her work, excluded from training sessions, and not invited to management meetings, including meetings about her own department. She was also belittled in front of other staff members, with her decisions overridden and, at least once, work she had done publicly destroyed. Her complaints fell on deaf ears. Termination. In a meeting with two of the VPs, the employee was told that her title was too powerful for a woman and that she should take an administrative position. When she complained, she was told that she was "being too aggressive and overreacting" and it was suggested that she "should assume the submissive role expected of females and play nicely within the boys’ club." Her desk was relocated to a location isolating her from her own department and she was taunted by the two VPs. She was subsequently fired; around the same time, four other female employees were fired and their job duties were delegated to male employees. No male employees were fired at that time. Gender discrimination. The court denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss the employee’s sex discrimination claim based on her termination as an adverse action. Other alleged conduct, including relocating her desk and stripping her of certain supervisory responsibilities, did not constitute adverse actions, standing alone, although they could provide background for whether gender was a motivating factor with regards to her discharge, the court said. It concluded that the employee pieced together a "mosaic" of facts that could give rise to a plausible inference that gender bias motivated the employer’s actions. The court also noted that the employee described the termination of five of the six female employees in her department and pointed to comments made around the same time that her position was too powerful for females; the suggestion that she step down; the statement that she was too aggressive, was overreacting, and should be submissive; and a comment by one of the VPs evidencing disgust that one of its client companies was run by a female. Although the employer argued that these were her "subjective interpretations," the comments "objectively suggest gender bias," the court found. HWE and retaliation. The employer contended that the various comments made by the VPs and other managers were stray remarks, but the court held that when "viewed through the prism of the other allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior on the part of the Plaintiff’s supervisors, they could reasonably take on a more sinister meaning that contributed to an overall environment of gender hostility." The main dispute as to the retaliation claim was whether a causal connection existed between her complaints about the VP’s statements, made in a May 2014 meeting, and her termination the following month. Based on temporal proximity alone, the court found it plausible to infer a causal connection. Moreover, although the intervening actions taken by the employer could not constitute an adverse action standing alone, they plausibly could paint a picture that the employer intended to punish her for her complaint. Single employer. Finally, the court concluded that the single-employer doctrine was applicable because the complaint alleged that On-Site continued to play a role in personnel decisions after the acquisition, including paying union dues for all of its former employees and other benefits for certain employees.

Interested in submitting an article?

Submit your information to us today!

Learn More