Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment Claim Survives Dismissal; Allegations Included Repeated Sexual Comments

In Colavecchia v. South Side Area School District, 2023 WL 3043777 (W.D.Pa. April 21, 2023), 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:

Under the first prong, a court may conclude that sexual proposals from colleagues constitute sex discrimination. See Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs., Inc., 523 U.S. 75, 81 (1998) (discrimination on the basis of sex is “easy to draw in most male-female sexual harassment situations, because the challenged conduct typically involves explicit or implicit proposals of sexual activity”). South Side argues that Ms. Colavecchia has not alleged that discrimination occurred on the basis of sex. The Court disagrees. Ms. Colavecchia has alleged that Mr. Kavals “continually stated his desire to have a sexual relationship with [her] and requested sexual favors from her on multiple occasions,” creating a plausible inference of sex discrimination. ECF No. 1 ¶ 15. Therefore, the Court finds that she has adequately alleged intentional discrimination on the basis of sex.

Under the second prong, a court considers the totality of the circumstances in assessing whether the challenged conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive. Mandel, 706 F.3d at 169. A court may assess “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.” Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 23 (1993). South Side argues that Mr. Kavals’ comments are not sufficiently extreme as to alter “the terms and conditions of employment.” ECF No. 13 at 8 (quoting Burgess v. Dollar Tree Stores, Inc., 642 F. App’x 152, 155 (3d Cir. 2016)). As alleged, however, Mr. Kavals’ sexual comments to Ms. Colavecchia were not offhanded remarks but occurred “on multiple occasions” starting in September of 2020 and continuing to, at least, May of 2021. ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 13, 15, 16. These comments allegedly occurred via text, in person, and at any time of day. Id. ¶ 14. Therefore, the Court finds that she has sufficiently alleged that the comments were severe and pervasive.

To the extent that South Side addresses the remaining components of a hostile work environment claim—whether the comments detrimentally affected Ms. Colavecchia, whether the comments would have detrimentally affected a reasonable person in her position, and whether respondeat superior liability exists—the Court finds that Ms. Colavecchia has plausibly alleged each of these. Mandel, 706 F.3d at 169. First, accepting the allegations as true, she asserts that the comments did, in fact, detrimentally affect her given that she felt unsafe at work. Grazioli v. Genuine Parts Co., 409 F. Supp. 2d 569, 578 (D.N.J. 2005) (citing Harris, 510 U.S. at 22) (this subjective component is “a relatively low hurdle to clear”). Second, it is plausible that a reasonable person in her position would have been detrimentally affected by these comments, especially in light of the fact that other female staff had made complaints about Mr. Kavals’ behavior. See Oncale, 523 U.S. at 81 (this objective component is evaluated in light of “all the circumstances” with “an appropriate sensitivity to social context”). Third, she alleges that she reported the inappropriate behavior to the principal and the superintendent, but no corrective action was taken, such that respondeat superior liability could plausibly exist. Vance v. Ball State Univ., 570 U.S. 421, 446 (2013) (“[A]n employer will always be liable when its negligence leads to the creation or continuation of a hostile work environment.”).

Based on this, the court held that defendant’s motion to dismiss will be denied.

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