Sex and Retaliation-Based Hostile Work Environment Claims Survive Dismissal

In Cavanagh v. Idexx Laboratories, Inc., No. 2:23-cv-00273-NT, 2024 WL 2724195 (D.Me. May 28, 2024), the court, inter alia, denied defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s sex and retaliation-based hostile work environment claims.

From the decision:

Nelson’s campaign succeeded in souring other IDEXX employees’ opinions of Cavanagh. Due to this souring, IDEXX made Cavanagh jump through hoops not required for her male colleagues when she sought a promotion. Nelson and another male employee disregarded positive feedback about Cavanagh when it came from senior female leaders. The campaign of negativity continued all the way up to IDEXX’s CEO, to whom Nelson gratuitously complained about Cavanagh’s performance on a project Nelson had nothing to do with. Cavanagh ended up buried under more and more managers, including one who gave her tasks below her pay grade and unfairly berated her. This treatment over a period of years caused Cavanagh to become depressed and take a medical leave of absence.

On these allegations, I find that Cavanagh has stated claims for both a retaliatory and sex-based hostile work environment. Importantly, because this is a motion to dismiss, I am necessarily evaluating an incomplete record. See Bodman v. Me. Dept. of Health and Hum. Servs., 720 F. Supp. 2d 115, 121 (D. Me. 2010) (noting that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) simply requires “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,” and explaining that plaintiffs need not prove their entire cases in their pleadings). For that reason, the numerous summary judgment decisions IDEXX cites in its briefs are of limited use at this stage, since “the determination of whether an issue is trialworthy simply is not the same as the determination of whether a plaintiff states a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Id.7

The record here plausibly alleges sustained mistreatment over a period of years—mistreatment that began by inappropriately sharing information related to Cavanagh’s potential workplace romance, and intensified after she complained about sex-based mistreatment. This campaign of mistreatment included instances of professional sabotage and denials of support, including setting artificial barriers for Cavanagh (but not male employees) when she wanted to apply for a promotion. Moreover, Nelson’s conduct soured Cavanagh’s reputation throughout IDEXX, which caused others to mistreat her as well. This conduct interfered with her work, transforming Cavanagh from a high-potential employee to one whose career had stalled out. For present purposes, Cavanagh has plausibly alleged sustained mistreatment on the basis of sex and protected conduct. IDEXX’s motion to dismiss her sex and retaliation-based hostile work environment claims is denied.

The court declined to decide whether her allegations of constructive discharge are sufficient to state a claim.

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