Ruling that “to constitute sexual harassment, the behavior in question must be unwelcome.”
Rejecting the OCR guidance as unworkable.
The court held that a correctional officer’s behavior towards a prisoner, alleged spanking and comments that could be construed as sexual made toward the plaintiff, did not violate the plaintiff’s rights.
The United States District Court for the District of Columbia held that the plaintiff, who had been subjected to a quid pro quo environment, had met his prima facie burden of establishing that a corrections officer is not entitled to immunity from the plaintiff’s claims. Plaintiff claimed that the sergeant “threatened, coerced, and attempted to force another inmate to engage in sexual relations with him.” Additionally, the court held that “that any reasonable prison official would have known that to try to force an unwanted and prohibited sexual act on an inmate is objectively unreasonable and in violation of the inmate’s rights.”
Continental Can Co., Inc. v. State, 297 N.W.2d 241 (Minn. 1980) was the first coworker harassment case brought by Willie Ruth Hawkins, an African American woman who worked at the Continental Can Company in Eagan, Minnesota.
Starting in December of 1974, three of Hawkins’ white male co-workers repeatedly made explicit, sexually derogatory remarks and verbal sexual advances to Hawkins and touched her sexually. One of her coworkers, Cliff Warling, made racist and sexually abusive comment to Hawkins. Warling and other male coworkers told her that “a female has no business in a factory” and “if a female would work [in] a factory, she has to be a tramp.”
Hawkins repeatedly complained to her supervisor but Continental did nothing. One supervisor told Hawkins that there was nothing he could do and that she had to expect that kind of behavior when working with men. In October 1975, the harassment of Hawkins escalated to physical violence. Warling approached Hawkins from behind while she was bending over and grabbed her between the legs. Hawkins complained immediately, but again Continental did nothing. A few days later, Hawkins’ husband came to the plant and confronted Warling, who denied the incident. When Mr. Hawkins returned later that evening to escort his wife home, they discovered that her car headlights were broken. Relations between the Hawkins and her coworkers deteriorated further, culminating in a coworker threatening Willie Ruth Hawkins with a gun in front of her children.
At that point, the Hawkins solicited the support of New Way Community Center and the Urban League, who threatened boycotts and adverse publicity if Continental did not respond. Continental then suspended two of the harassers and held a plant meeting to inform all employees that Continental would not tolerate verbal or physical sexual harassment and discrimination. Fearing for her safety, Hawkins did not return to work and was later fired. She brought a lawsuit under state law and won, creating a precedent for the important principle that employer tolerance of hostile environment harassment by coworkers was sex discrimination.
Williams v. New York City Housing Authority, 61 A.D.3d 62 (1st Dep’t 2009) established that the legal standard in New York City is not whether the harassing conduct was “severe or pervasive” but when looking at how someone is treated has that person been treated “less well” because of their gender. Thus, under the New York City Human Rights Law, conduct need not be “severe or pervasive” to constitute a hostile work environment, but instead the analysis is one of differential treatment and whether a victim has been treated “less well” than other employees in the workplace due to gender. In New York City a violation is defined as more than “petty slights and trivial inconveniences.” This standard was adopted into New York state law in 2019.