Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment Claim Survives Summary Judgment; Evidence Included Verbal and Physical Conduct

In Yeaman v. City of Burley et al, No. 4:21-cv-00345-BLW, 2023 WL 2868575 (D.Idaho April 10, 2023), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s hostile work environment sexual harassment claim.

The court summarized the basis for its decision as follows:

Here, Yeaman easily satisfies the first two elements of her hostile work environment claim. She reports that, among other things, Hodge commented on her breast size, reached down her shirt, touched her while in the workplace, and requested that she accompany him on rides in his truck of an impliedly sexual nature. Each instance constituted unwelcomed harassment.

The remaining question is whether that harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create an abusive environment and alter the conditions of Yeaman’s employment. For several reasons, the Court concludes that Yeaman has raised triable issues on this question.

First, Hodge’s conduct occurred over a period of nearly five years and involved many separate instances of alleged harassment, bullying, sabotage, and isolation. Yeaman Decl. ¶¶ 7, 78, Dkt. 30-2. This case is therefore unlike Kortan, where the supervisor’s offensive comments were made in one burst on one day. Although Yeaman testified that Hodge’s sexual advances ended in July of 2018, Yeaman Dep. at 70:6–23, Ex. A, Dkt. 29-3, she claims that his hostile treatment continued in the form of bullying, sabotage, and isolation—all in retribution for rejecting his prior advances. Yeaman Decl. ¶ 107, Dkt. 30-2. By way of sabotage, Yeaman claims Hodge deleted data from her computer, id. ¶¶ 79, 135, changed task instructions just before deadlines, id., and “maliciously” provided the wrong materials for her to use in drafting sewer permits, id. ¶ 103. By way of isolation, Yeaman claims Hodge applied “special rules” to her, such as prohibiting her from wearing baseball caps, id. ¶ 78, prohibiting her from taking coffee breaks with her coworkers, id., constantly demanding that she inform him of her whereabouts, id. ¶¶ 78, 104, and prohibiting her from closing her office door, id. ¶ 47.

Second, Yeaman alleges both verbal and physical harassment. She describes one occasion where Hodge “stuck his whole hand down [her] shirt,” Yeaman Dep. at 59:23–25, Ex. G, Dkt. 30-1, and grabbed the end of a necklace resting “between [her] cleavage.” Yeaman Decl. ¶ 55, Dkt. 30-2. Another time, Hodge stood behind Yeaman when she was alone in her office, placed one hand on her lower back and the other on her hand, and asked her to go for a ride with him. Id. ¶¶ 67–68. At other times, Hodge would “stand behind [Yeaman] while [she] was at her computer and dangle his arms over [her] or rest his hands on [her] arms when [her] arms were on the arm rest.” Id. ¶ 54. When Yeaman retracted from those touches, Hodge made comments to the effect that her “job was on the line.” Id.

Third, the fact that Hodge was Yeaman’s department head and supervisor strengthens her claim that his conduct made the work environment hostile. “The Supreme Court has recognized that ‘acts of supervisors have greater power to alter the environment than acts of coemployees generally.’

Finally, Yeaman’s claim of experiencing mental and physical manifestations of distress support her position that Hodge’s hostility was severe. Namely, she reports that his “outrageous and extreme” conduct “caused great mental strain” which led her to lose thirty-five pounds between November 2017 and January 2020 and required doubling her dosage of anxiety medication.

The court concluded, based on this, that “[a] reasonable jury could conclude that Hodge created an abusive work environment given the nature, frequency, persistence, and cumulative effect of his alleged conduct towards Yeaman. Summary judgement is therefore improper.”

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