Sexual Harassment (Hostile Work Environment) Claim Sufficiently Alleged; Court Rejects Defense Argument Focusing on “Discrete” Acts

In Stripling v. Ingram Barge Company, LLC, No. 3:21-cv-00654, 2022 WL 17475764 (M.D.Tenn. Dec. 6, 2022), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s hostile work environment sexual harassment claim asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

From the decision:

A prima facie claim for discrimination arising out sexual harassment that creates a hostile work environment requires facts establishing: (1) the plaintiff is a member of a protected class; (2) she experienced unwelcomed sexual harassment; (3) the harassment was based on sex; (4) the harassment created a hostile work environment; and (5) the employer is liable. Whether harassing conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive to establish a hostile work environment is ‘quintessentially a question of fact. To show a hostile work environment, Plaintiff must show, based on a totality of the circumstances, that the harassing conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of her employment. To be actionable, the harassment must consist of more than words that simply have sexual content or connotations. Courts consider the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.

Defendant argues the conduct alleged amounts to limited and discrete instances of offensive conduct and is not sufficiently severe or pervasive to be actionable. Defendant notes that Plaintiff does not allege that she was propositioned for sex and contends remarks about women being “nasty” are not themselves actionable.

Defendant’s argument focusing on discrete events ignores the alleged pervasiveness and severity of the conduct alleged. Plaintiff claims that she was subjected to offensive and harassing conduct “constantly” and that she became concerned for her safety and ultimately insisted on leaving the boat. At this stage, Plaintiff’s allegations are sufficient to state a plausible claim for sexual harassment that created a hostile work environment.

[Cleaned up.]

This decision, as such, underscores that such claims must be assessed based on the totality of the circumstances, and not parsed into “discrete” acts.

The court also held that plaintiff sufficiently alleged a “quid pro quo” sexual harassment claim. While her complaint did “not allege that the captain expressly told her that he would treat her more favorably if she agreed to have sex with him,” she argued “that the captains statements about the previous cook having sex with the crew coupled with his escalating harassment and intimidation implied that she would be treated better if she slept with him or other crew members.” When viewed against the applicable standard (construing the allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the court held that “the captain’s alleged lewd conduct could be viewed as sexual advances and Plaintiff’s failure to submit to these advances resulted in a tangible job detriment in the form of the captain’s escalating harassment which she alleges resulted in her constructive discharge.”

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