Employee called ‘hot assistant’ by dentist advances sexual harassment claims
Friday, November 8, 2019

Employee called ‘hot assistant’ by dentist advances sexual harassment claims

By Wayne D. Garris Jr., J.D.

After the dental assistant’s claims survived a motion to dismiss, the employer moved for summary judgment arguing that the employee’s complaint was untimely and did not establish a hostile work environment.

A federal district court in Connecticut denied a dental practice’s motion for summary judgment against a former dental assistant’s claims of hostile work environment stemming from a dentist’s harassing conduct. The court found that the dentist’s sexual conduct, such as massaging the employee and calling her his "hot assistant" combined with his non-sexual conduct, yelling and throwing items, were sufficient to establish that she was subjected to hostile work environment. Additionally, the record showed that the employer not only failed to take remedial action but appeared to side with the dentist when the employee and other dental assistants complained about the dentist’s conduct (Champagne v. Columbia Dental, P.C., November 5, 2019, Bryant, V.).

Timeliness. To start, the court rejected the employer’s argument that the employee can only base her claim on alleged incidents of harassment that occurred within 300 days prior to the filing of her EEOC charge. The court held that because the employee alleged a hostile work environment, rather than sexual harassment based on discrete acts, it could consider acts outside the statutory time period, as long as any act contributing to that hostile environment took place within the statutory time period. Here, the employee alleged two acts within the statutory time period: the dentist stabbed her with a dental drill and threw a dental burr at her on the same day.

Hostile work environment. After considering all of the employee’s evidence, the court conclude that she was subjected to a hostile work environment. The record showed that the dentist massaged the employee’s shoulders twice, threw various items when he got angry, and at times threw them at the employee. The dentist also called the employee his "hot assistant" and his "daytime wife" when his friends, who were also patients, would come to his office. On one occasion, prior to leaving for vacation in Las Vegas, the dentist asked the employee if he would see her "stripping around a pole on a stage." Combined with the two incidents that occurred within the limitations period and the dentist’s admission to some of the conduct, the evidence weighed in favor of a finding of hostile work environment.

Employer response. Additionally, the employee established that the employer was liable for the dentist’s conduct. Another dental assistant testified that she, and other employees, observed the dentist’s behavior and harassment of plaintiff and other dental assistants, including yelling, using profanity, and massaging female employees. The assistants made formal complaints to the employer; however, no remedial action was taken. In fact, a letter from the employer’s Clinical Director indicated that the employer supported the dentist and was trying to protect him, rather than investigate his behavior.

Given the employer’s response, the court concluded that a reasonable trier of fact could find that the employee was subjected to a severe and pervasive hostile work environment based on her gender and that her employer failed to take action. Thus, the employer’s motion for summary judgment was denied.

The case is No. 3:18-CV-10390.

Attorneys: James V. Sabatini (Sabatini & Associates) for Jennifer Champagne. Thomas A. Amato (Law Offices of Thomas A. Amato) for Columbia Dental PC.

Companies: Columbia Dental PC

Cases: Discrimination SexualHarassment SexDiscrimination ConnecticutNews

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