The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently clarified the extent of workplace protections against same-sex sexual harassment (in other words, sexual harassment where the harasser and victim are of the same gender) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, in a case titled Roberts v. Glenn Indus. Grp., Inc. The Court explained there are multiple ways to prove same-sex harassment, including proof of an employee’s failure to conform to gender stereotypes.
The Roberts case has potentially widespread implications for both employers and employees. The GaffneyLewis employment team is here to serve your legal needs, both inside and outside the courtroom.
In 2015, Chazz Roberts, a male employee, worked as a diver’s assistant for a company that specialized in underwater inspection and repair services. Roberts worked in an all-male environment and claimed he was subjected to homophobic, derogatory, and sexually explicit comments by his male supervisor. For example, Roberts’s supervisor called him “gay” and referred to him as having “retard strength.” The supervisor also physically assaulted Roberts on several occasions.
Roberts sued the company under Title VII, which prohibits same-sex sexual harassment in the workplace. The trial (district) court ruled in favor of the company, dismissing Robert’s sexual harassment claim before it reached trial. The company prevailed because the district court determined Roberts’s complaints did not fall within any one of the three specific situations set forth in the Supreme Court’s 1998 decision, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, i.e., the supervisor/harasser was not homosexual, the offending comments did not demonstrate a general hostility toward men in the workplace, and, because the workplace was all male, there was no comparative evidence of the harasser treating female employees better than male employees. The trial court also ignored the physical assaults because they were not of a sexual nature.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s ruling, clarifying that the three examples contained in Oncale by which an employee may allege same-sex harassment are not the only means available for an employee to prove same-sex sexual harassment.
Rather, an employee may use additional forms of proof to demonstrate the harassment was based on sex, including the employee’s failure to conform to gender stereotypes. Moreover, the Fourth Circuit reminded employers of the 2020 Supreme Court decision, Bostock v. Clayton County, which approved of sexual orientation claims under Title VII.
Finally, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court erroneously disregarded the physical assaults against Roberts because they were “not of a sexual nature.” There is no requirement under Title VII, the Court said, that only sexual-based assaults can substantiate a claim of a hostile work environment based on sex.
Cases like Roberts demonstrate how important it is for workplaces to not tolerate harassing, derogatory, homophobic, or sexually explicit language. Training should be in place to prevent and appropriately respond to such conduct. It’s a good lesson for employers and their human resources departments, and an encouraging sign to employees experiencing harassment.
If you’re an employee or employer and you have questions about your workplace rights or obligations, give GaffneyLewis, LLC, a call today.
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