Hostile Work Environment Claim Dismissed; Romantic Rumors Insufficient

In Olaechea v. City of New York et al, 17-CV-4797, 2019 WL 4805846 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2019), the court, inter alia, dismissed plaintiff’s gender-based hostile work environment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the New York State Human Rights Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law.

As to plaintiff’s federal and state-law claims, the court explained:

[T]he alleged rumors that were spread about Olaechea being romantically involved with Velazquez do not support the existence of a hostile work environment based on Olaechea’s gender. Rumors of two colleagues having a sexual relationship with one another are not innately gender based—they may be equally upsetting to either colleague regardless of their gender. Even assuming that any of the purported rumors could be deemed gender specific, Olaechea has produced no evidence that they were motivated by gender animus in particular. … Indeed, courts in this district have routinely held that “comments by coworkers about an extramarital affair do not inherently constitute conduct motivated by gender animus.” … Similarly, Defendants’ decision to subpoena Olaechea’s children to testify at her departmental trial—despite whether or not it was intended to harass her—does not suggest on its face that it was motivated by her gender.

It is true that during the investigative interview conducted in November 2015—which addressed, in part, the July 10, 2015 note that allegedly referenced a sexual relationship between Velazquez and Olaechea—she was asked whether she had engaged in sexual conduct with Velazquez while on duty. Unlike the other allegations of hostile work environment just discussed, the record may suggest that the investigative interview was gender-based. This is because Defendants have not rebutted Olaechea’s assertion that Velazquez’s relationships with other male employees—who also complained that Velazquez was being discriminated against—were not investigated. But even if the questions Olaechea was asked at the November 2015 interview may have been motivated at least in part by her gender, and even though they may have been embarrassing or degrading, they fall short of establishing a hostile work environment claim.

While acknowledging that the New York City Human Rights Law “imposes broader liability for hostile work environment claims than Title VII and the NYSHRL”, even under that statute, “a reasonable jury could not find that Defendants subjected Olaechea to a gender-based hostile work environment” since “nothing in the record suggests that any rumors about her relationship with Velazquez were motivated by a gender-based animus.”

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