Sexual Harassment Claims Dismissed; “Slight Physical Contact”, “Infatuation” Insufficiently “Severe or Pervasive”

In a recent case, Hou v. Voya Insurance and Annuity Company et al, 2021 WL 5918573 (E.D.Pa. Dec. 15, 2021), the court, inter alia, held that plaintiff failed to demonstrate that the alleged conduct was sufficiently “severe or pervasive” to overcome summary judgment on her claim of hostile work environment sexual harassment asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

From the decision:

[V]iewing all the evidence and construing it in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, Plaintiff has shown that her direct manager stared at her breasts and body in the workplace, generally failed to respect her personal space, and subjected her to three unwelcome romantic overtures, one instance of sexual innuendo, and one instance of unwelcome physical contact. Of course, Defendants deny this characterization of what happened and have produced substantial evidence to support their version of the facts. But Defendants’ contradictory evidence, at the summary judgment stage, establishes only that a genuine dispute of fact remains as to accuracy of Plaintiff’s narrative. Accordingly, the only question before this Court is whether Plaintiff’s narrative, when fully credited, represents severe or pervasive discrimination as a matter of law.

Two of this Court’s prior summary judgment decisions are particularly relevant to this case: Willauer v. Riley Sales, Inc., 2009 WL 2959822, (E.D. Pa. Sept. 16, 2009) and Seybert v. International Group, Inc., 2009 WL 72291, (E.D. Pa. Mar. 17, 2009).

In Willauer, the plaintiff had produced evidence showing that her manager had stared at her breasts, regularly commented on her appearance, once watched her change into a bathing suit at a company event, once written her name all over a piece of paper as though the manager were infatuated with the plaintiff, and once suggested that the plaintiff and the manager share a room on a company trip. 2009 WL 2959822 at *1. The Court concluded that these facts “at most” suggested a work environment in which “an individual who is attracted to another individual…made modest overtures to that fact.” The Court concluded that such a workplace was not severely or pervasively discriminatory as a matter of law and granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on that issue.

In Seybert, by contrast, the plaintiff had produced evidence showing that her direct manager had not only stared at her breasts and once directed sexual innuendo at her but also berated her on three occasions and ignored and avoided her after she complained about his conduct. The Court denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that a jury could find these conditions to represent severe or pervasive discrimination.

Plaintiff’s telling of the facts is closer to Willauer than it is to Seybert. As in Willauer and unlike in Seybert, there is no evidence in this case that Defendant Wawrzynek ever berated Plaintiff or froze her out of professional interactions.And while this case involves an instance of unwanted physical contact that Seybert did not, the evidence, even when construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, suggests that this contact was no more than a few moments of hand and knee grazing while Plaintiff and Defendant Wawrzynek shared a computer in a small cubicle. Defendant Wawrzynek could have shown better respect for Plaintiff’s personal space. But this slight physical contact is not severe enough to move this case into the realm of Seybert. As in Willauer, the evidence in this case suggests at most that Defendant Wawrzynek developed an infatuation with Plaintiff and made modest overtures towards that end while also doing a poor job of respecting Plaintiff’s personal space. These conditions are insufficiently severe or pervasive to support a hostile work environment claim under Title VII.

[Citations omitted.]

This case illustrates the relatively high bar imposed by Title VII’s “severe or pervasive” standard applicable to hostile work environment cases. The outcome of this case might have been different if they were evaluated under a less strict standard, such as the “treated less well” standard applicable under the New York City Human Rights Law.

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