Sex-Based Hostile Work Environment Claims Against Planet Fitness Survive Summary Judgment

In Maryse v. PFNY LLC et al, 23-cv-891 (AS), 2024 WL 3087533 (S.D.N.Y. June 20, 2024), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s sex-based hostile work environment claims.

Plaintiff alleges, among other things, that he was sexually harassed by a co-worker, Williams, in the form of allegedly sexually explicit comments (“I want to suck your dick”) as well as sexual contact (“graz[ing]” plaintiff’s genitals).

In concluding that plaintiff raised a genuine issue of material fact under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the court explained:

A Title VII claimant may also establish an employer’s liability under a hostile-work-environment theory if the employee was subjected to harassment on account of his sex. A hostile work environment claim requires a showing [1] that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment, and [2] that a specific basis exists for imputing the objectionable conduct to the employer. The plaintiff must demonstrate either that a single incident was extraordinarily severe, or that a series of incidents were sufficiently continuous and concerted to have altered the conditions of her working environment. This standard includes both objective and subjective components: the conduct complained of must be severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would find it hostile or abusive, and the victim must subjectively perceive the work environment to be abusive.

In a situation such as this, when the harassment is attributable to a coworker, rather than a supervisor, the employer will be held liable only for its own negligence. Maryse must demonstrate that his employer failed to provide a reasonable avenue for complaint or that it knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known, about the harassment yet failed to take appropriate remedial action.

Genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgment on this claim. First, there are disputes as to what Williams did. Maryse testified that while working with Williams, Williams “expressed that he wanted to grab [Maryse’s] dick and ask[ed] about [Maryse’s] pubic hair[ ].” Maryse also testified that Williams’s statements went “from like joking” to “actually like trying to grab and then eventually doing it,” meaning grabbing Maryse’s genitals. … Maryse testified that Williams “offered to help me get promoted if I were to have sex with him.” Defendants point out that (even according to Maryse) all the harassment occurred while he and Williams were working together, which occurred for a total of less than two hours. But even a single incident of harassment may be enough when the incident includes [d]irect contact with an intimate body part.

There are also questions of material fact as to whether the conduct can be imputed to Planet Fitness. Planet Fitness’s employee manual states: “Any employee who believes that he or she has been subjected to prohibited harassment, discrimination or retaliation by a co-worker, supervisor, agent, client, vendor or customer of Planet Fitness … should immediately provide a written or verbal report to his or her manager.” And Maryse testified that he reported these statements in “generalized” terms to Perez and Paredes. … Assuming Maryse’s testimony is true, there is no evidence that any investigation or action was taken in response to this report. See Distasio v. Perkin Elmer Corp., 157 F.3d 55, 64 (2d Cir. 1998) (“[The supervisor’s] knowledge is also imputed to [the employer] on an independent ground, namely that he had a responsibility to relay sexual harassment complaints to the company under the express policy promulgated by the company.”).

Defendants argue that the Court should grant summary judgment because none of the evidence in the record—other than Maryse’s “unsubstantiated allegations” and “self-serving deposition testimony”—supports Maryse’s claims. To be sure, Maryse has not pointed to any other evidence substantiating his claim. But this is not a case in which Maryse’s testimony was contradictory and incomplete so as to be completely disregarded. Instead, Maryse testified that he was harassed in a manner that could give rise to a Title VII claim and that he reported that harassment to managers. To the extent that Defendants doubt Maryse’s veracity, they will have the chance to make their case to the jury.

[Citations and internal quotation marks omitted.]

The court further explained that plaintiff’s claims under the New York State and City Human Rights Laws – to the extent they were based on the alleged failure to act in response to the alleged harassment – likewise survive.

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