Sex/Pregnancy Hostile Work Environment Claim Survives Summary Judgment Against Louisiana Law Firm

In Fugarino v. Milling, Benson, Woodward LLP, No. 21-594, 2022 WL 6743191 (E.D.La. Oct. 11, 2022), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’ motion on plaintiff’s claim of a sex/pregnancy-based hostile work environment claim asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The court summarized plaintiff’s proof, at least in part, as follows:

In late 2018, Plaintiff applied and interviewed for a position as an associate attorney at Defendant’s Mandeville, Louisiana office location, during which time she was told by Normand Pizza, the managing partner of MBW, that it would be “best” if she held off starting a family.

Plaintiff was then hired by Defendant, and, a few months into her employment, Plaintiff advised Defendant she was pregnant. Thereafter, and frequently either throughout her pregnancy, after her pregnancy, or both, lawyers at MBW commented on, inter alia, the size of Plaintiff’s breasts; how her breasts were going to grow and had grown with her pregnancy; that Plaintiff would “enjoy” breastfeeding in a highly sexual manner; how her body would “change” with pregnancy; inquiries into whether and/or how she would breastfeed; the shape and “curves of her body” as an Italian woman and an Italian pregnant woman; that she was “beautiful” with her growing body; whether or not she would buy maternity clothes and when; how she would only receive paid maternity leave for two (2) weeks because she was not as valuable as other male associates at MBW; how she should breastfeed to lose weight and connect with the baby; how the firm was not conducive to a “mother-baby relationship;” how women should stay home with their children; how the legal profession was not conducive to working mothers; how Plaintiff should find a career not as demanding as the practice of law because she wanted to be a mother.

Plaintiff testified these comments were made in Normand Pizza’s office, in Plaintiff’s office, in the hallway, and in the office kitchen—all in front of others.

Plaintiff testified the conduct she was subjected to negatively affected her emotions and her ability to focus and perform her job—particularly because she was concerned the comments would escalate into touching.

In denying defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the court rejected defendant’s “spattering of arguments” as to whether the alleged harassment “affected a term, condition, or privilege of her employment” on the ground that plaintiff “cannot say how many times she was subject to the complained-of conduct” (cleaned up), since to require plaintiff to do so would impose an “onerous burden” that is “not required by law.”

It also rejected defendant’s argument that the alleged comments did not involve sex or sexually-explicit language, noting that in opposition to summary judgment, plaintiff provided evidence of comments, by partners at the defendant firm, relating to her breasts.

The court additionally rejected defendant’s argument that plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim was undermined by her alleged acknowledgment that the alleged comments did not impact her “work product,” noting that in assessing the merits of a hostile work environment claim the relevant precedent “instructs courts to consider whether the complained-of conduct unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance, which, obviously is broader than, and captures, an employee’s work product.” Here, plaintiff’s testimony – that the conduct caused her to be a “nervous wreck”, “constantly on edge” precluding her from “fully focusing on her work being done” (cleaned up) – created an issue of fact under the relevant standard.

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