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Waiter serves suit implicating female boss; courts are digesting it

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Employers in the 7th Circuit, which covers Illinois, recently got a reminder that courts have long memories when it comes to sexual harassment cases based on an allegedly hostile work environment.

At issue are the timing limitations Title VII of the Civil Rights Act places on sexual harassment claims. Like other EEOC claims, employees generally have 180 days to file their complaints.

In Turner v. The Saloon Ltd. (No. 07-2449, 7th Cir., 2010), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit recently ruled that in a sexual harassment claim based on a hostile work environment, if at least one act of alleged harassment occurred within 180 days of an EEOC filing, courts can consider the entire time period of the hostile environment in determining an employer’s liability.

Female on male harassment

The 7th Circuit decided that, in Turner, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois had improperly excluded a supervisor’s alleged suggestive comments and inappropriate touching of the plaintiff because they didn’t occur within the 180-day time limit. The key was that plaintiff Paul Turner’s claim rested on a hostile work environment theory, rather than a “discrete” act of sexual discrimination. The appeals court concluded that all of the supervisor’s harassing acts should have been considered in determining unlawful discrimination—even those that allegedly took place more than 180 days before the filing.

The court found restaurant manager Denise Lake’s acts severe enough to create a hostile work environment, and reinstated Turner’s sexual harassment claim.

Turner was a waiter at The Saloon, a Chicago steakhouse. He claimed Lake began sexually harassing him shortly after he ended their nine-month consensual sexual relationship.

Apparently hoping to rekindle their relationship, Lake allegedly subjected Turner to a series of unwanted sexual advances. Turner said that on one occasion, Lake put her hands in his pockets and grabbed his crotch. On other occasions, he testified, Lake made suggestive and explicit comments, asked for a kiss and grabbed his buttocks. Finally, Lake is alleged to have commented that she missed seeing Turner naked.

When Turner complained to management, Lake allegedly retaliated against him by reprimanding him in front of co-workers and assigning him to less profitable tables.

The lower court decision

The district court concluded that most of the supervisor’s alleged acts of sexual harassment occurred too long ago to be covered by Turner’s EEOC complaint. As a result, the district court excluded all but Lake’s comment that she missed seeing Turner naked. But the court found that comment wasn’t severe enough to create a hostile work environment.

Finding no unlawful discrimination, the court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, without deciding whether the employer could have been liable for Lake’s conduct.

The 7th Circuit reverses

The 7th Circuit disagreed with the district court’s reading of the limitations period under Title VII. Citing the United States Supreme Court’s decision in National Railroad Passenger Corporation v. Morgan (536 U.S. 101, 2002), the 7th Circuit concluded that the district court should have considered all of the supervisor’s alleged acts of inappropriate touching and sexually charged remarks.

The reasoning: Turner filed his complaint within 180 days of when at least one of those acts occurred—the “naked” comment.

Taken together, the court found that Lake’s unwanted sexual advances were sufficiently severe to create a hostile work environment.

The court acknowledged that the case presented a rather unusual instance of sexual harassment. First, the usual roles were reversed; a man was complaining of explicit sexual harassment and aggressive inappropriate touching by a female supervisor.

Second, Turner and Lake had been involved in a nine-month consensual sexual relationship before the alleged sexual harassment began. Nevertheless—while noting that sexual harassment isn’t confined to instances of a male supervisor harassing a female employee—the court found sufficient evidence that Lake’s conduct was unwelcome and subjected Turner to a hostile work environment.

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