In Smith v. Town of Hempstead (decided May 15, 2014), the Eastern District of New York held that plaintiff stated claims for sexual harassment/hostile work environment under Title VII, and a claim for municipal liability under 42 USC 1983. Plaintiff worked as a Community Research Assistant in the Town’s Clerk’s Office and claimed that she was subjected to unwelcome sexual comments and advances by her supervisor, Bonilla. Specifically:
Within two to three weeks after Smith began employment, Bonilla asked her to accompany him on road trips to events that he was attending. Smith claims that Bonilla made comments and advances of a sexual nature toward her and created an intimidating, hostile, and offensive working environment. Smith alleges, inter alia, that Bonilla inappropriately touched her while they were alone in his car and at various events, and that he made various comments about her looks. Smith claims that when she rebuffed Bonilla’s unwelcome and offensive advances, she was shunned and ignored in the office, depriving her of employment opportunities and ultimately leading her to transfer out of the Clerk’s office. In that respect, on August 16, 2012, Smith interviewed for a position in the Town’s Parks Department. That same day, Smith confirmed to a Town human resources employee and a Town attorney that she had been sexually harassed. Smith was immediately transferred from the Clerk’s office to the Parks Department. Smith claims that although the Town has adopted a sexual harassment policy, it failed to disseminate the policy to her or other employee’s of the Clerk’s office and that she never received sexual harassment training. She further alleges that the Town failed to properly train and supervise Bonilla regarding sexual harassment in the workplace.
Personal Staff Exemption
Initially, the court rejected defendant Town’s argument that plaintiff was exempt from coverage under Title VII due to the “personal staff exemption”. While Bonilla was indisputably an “elected official”, the court held (after reciting the factors relevant to the exemption) that “that a determination of whether Smith falls within the personal-staff exemption cannot be determined as a matter of law and should await further factual development.”
Municipal Liability – Section 1983
The court next turned to plaintiff’s attempt to hold the Town accountable under 42 USC 1983. Defendant argued that plaintiff failed to state a claim under that statute, since “the complaint does not sufficiently allege a custom, policy, or practice of the Town required to impose liability on the Town under § 1983.”
The court disagreed:
Sexual harassment in the workplace is neither a rare nor unforeseeable event. A municipality’s alleged failure to train employees regarding sexual harassment in the workplace may demonstrate a deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of those employees. The Court finds that the complaint is sufficient to state a claim that the Town so failed to train Bonilla and its employees in the Clerk’s office regarding sexual harassment in the workplace as to display a deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of those employees.
Hostile Work Environment
Finally, the court held that plaintiff sufficiently alleged a claim for hostile work environment. Defendant Town argued that plaintiff “does not allege statements or conduct “so offensive” as to alter the conditions of her employment and create a hostile work environment. Smith argues that the allegations are sufficient to state a claim for hostile work environment.”
The court again disagreed, finding that plaintiff’s “allegations are sufficient to state that she was subject to a sexually hostile work environment, particularly given her allegations that Bonilla inappropriately touched her while they were alone in his car and at various events”, which “conduct certainly could alter the conditions of her employment and create a hostile work environment.”