In Cruz v. NYS Dept. of Corrections, the Southern District of New York held (in a decision dated June 4, 2014) that the male plaintiff stated claims for hostile work environment and “quid pro quo” sexual harassment arising from unfair treatment by his female supervisor.
The facts, as summarized by the court:
Until August 8, 2012, Plaintiff was employed by DOCCS and supervised there by Joni Johnson. Plaintiff alleges that on an almost daily basis from May 2008 and July 2011, Johnson directed sexually tinged comments at him while making seductive facial expressions. The pervasive comments she allegedly made to him include the following: “[y]ou are the only man here, we didn’t have a man here in a long time,” “you are a good man,” “your wife is lucky,” “[you have] straight white teeth,” and “[your] back ha[s] a V-shape.” However, he did not accept her sexual advances, remaining austere and non-responsive.
Plaintiff alleges that Johnson became angry and agitated at his non-responsiveness, denying his vacation time and leave requests, and sabotaging his career advancement in the Department by not informing him of a training opportunity for which he had been approved, preventing him from advancing to an instructor position. Plaintiff formally complained about the comments in June and July 2011, but they continued until at least February 2012. Johnson’s actions forced him to seek the intervention of other supervisors to obtain time off and vacation when he preferred. Johnson also informed Plaintiff’s coworkers that he had made a complaint against her, told them that they should avoid Plaintiff, and told them not to speak to Plaintiff when unnecessary.
As a result, Plaintiff alleges he was isolated, deprived of the collegiality of his coworkers, and became depressed and less productive, eventually taking a sudden leave of absence. By June 25, 2012, Plaintiff had been diagnosed with adjustment disorder, anxiety, and depression, and entered professional mental health treatment which he continues to the present. Finally, because of Johnson’s actions, Plaintiff left DOCCS in August 2012 for a position with the New York State Liquor Authority, despite the fact that his new job had lower pay and fewer opportunities.
Hostile Work Environment
The court initially held that plaintiff sufficiently pled a hostile work environment claim.
“To show that a hostile work environment amounted to sex discrimination in violation of Title VII, Plaintiff must demonstrate that (1) the discriminatory conduct was objectively severe or pervasive, such that a reasonable person would perceive the environment as hostile or abusive; (2) he subjectively perceived the environment as hostile or abusive; and (3) the hostile or abusive environment was created due to his sex.”
“To survive the motion to dismiss, Plaintiff need only show facts supporting the conclusion that he faced harassment … of such quality or quantity that a reasonable employee would find the conditions of … employment altered for the worse, and courts ‘have repeatedly cautioned against setting the bar too high.”
Plaintiff met this standard:
Taken as true and viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the [complaint] alleges that Plaintiff’s supervisor made almost-daily comments for over three years, remarking upon his physical appearance, gender, and sexual attractiveness while smiling seductively, and implying sexual intent. Defendant’s argument that this conduct is not sexual harassment because the comments can be construed as praise, compliments, and mere factual statements, is without merit, because the issue is not the employer’s intent. [C]onduct that poisons the workplace is actionable so long as the environment would reasonably be perceived, and is perceived, as hostile or abusive, whether or not the abuser specifically intends that it should be so. [Citations omitted]. It is plausible that the alleged comments would cause a reasonable person to find the conditions of his employment altered for the worse by gender-based hostility.
Quid Pro Quo Sex Discrimination
Next, the court turned to defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s disparate treatment, or “quid pro quo”, gender discrimination claims.
Initially, plaintiff argued that “Johnson denied several of his vacation and leave requests, and forced him to seek intervention from other supervisors to take time off when he preferred.” The court held that “[t]hese allegations fail to make out any actionable adverse employment action, because [t]he particular timing of a vacation is not so disruptive that it crosses the line from ‘mere inconvenience’ to ‘materially adverse’ employment action.”
The court reached a different conclusion, however, as to plaintiff’s allegation “that Johnson kept him in the dark when Defendant’s Staff Development Office specifically requested his attendance at a training held on February 1, 2012 for adjunct instructor candidates.” In particular:
Plaintiff argues that Johnson’s failure to inform him of his selection to be trained as an instructor deprived him of an opportunity for career advancement. [T]he denial of professional training opportunities may constitute an adverse employment action, but only where an employee can show material harm from the denial, such as a failure to promote or a loss of career advancement opportunities. [Citations omitted]. It is plausible that the alleged conduct occurred because Plaintiff rejected his supervisor’s sexual advances, and reasonable to infer this denial deprived him of the material benefits of an opportunity to advance his career by becoming an adjunct instructor, a “stepping-stone towards becoming a full-time instructor.” Because Plaintiff’s allegations of denial of a training opportunity are sufficient at this stage to state a plausible claim, the Court denies the motion to dismiss in part. Plaintiff may proceed with the claim that denial of a training opportunity constituted quid pro quo sex discrimination.
The court dismissed plaintiff’s retaliation claim, finding that “Plaintiff’s allegations that Johnson cause him to be isolated, enjoy[ing] no collegiality as others did are insufficient, because such shunning is not more disruptive than a mere inconvenience so as to establish that he suffered a materially adverse action.” Therefore, “[h]aving failed to show specific retaliatory conduct that is objectively likely to dissuade employees from complaining or assisting in complaints about discrimination [citation omitted], Plaintiff has failed to state a plausible Title VII retaliation claim.”