Sexual Harassment (Hostile Work Environment) Claim Survives Summary Judgment Against Hartford Board of Education

In Dunham v. Hartford Board of Education, No. HHD-CV-206129681-S, 2022 WL 1223917 (Conn. Super. April 26, 2022), the court, inter alia denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s hostile work environment sexual harassment claim asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

From the decision:

A hostile work environment claim requires two elements: (1) an objectively offensive workplace “permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment”; (internal quotation marks omitted) Id., 85; and (2) a basis to impute the conduct creating the hostile work environment to the employer. Brittell v. Dept. of Correction, 247 Conn. 148, 167-68 (1998); accord Martinsky v. Bridgeport, 814 F.Sup.2d 130, 151 (D.Conn. 2011), aff’d, 504 F. App’x 43 (2d Cir. 2012).

Regarding the first element, the defendant makes half-hearted argument in a footnote that the plaintiff will be “unable to show that the conduct was sufficiently pervasive” to create a hostile work environment. At the outset, it bears noting that at the summary judgment stage it is the burden of the defendant to show conclusively that the described conduct cannot, as a matter of law, establish a hostile work environment. “[E]ven a single episode of harassment can establish a hostile work environment if the incident is sufficiently severe.” Redd v. New York Div. of Parole, 678 F.3d 166, 175–76 (2d Cir. 2012) (quotation marks omitted). A plaintiff may establish a hostile work environment by demonstrating “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.” Howley v. Town of Stratford, 217 F.3d 141, 153 (2d Cir. 2000) (citation omitted). By their nature, these are fact-bound determinations that are inappropriate for summary judgment.

As to the second element of a hostile work environment claim, to provide a basis to impute the conduct creating the hostile work environment to the employer, the plaintiff must bring forth facts supporting either a negligence theory of liability stemming from discriminatory harassment by another employee or vicarious liability stemming from discriminatory harassment by a supervisor. See Brittell v. Dept. of Correction, supra, 247 Conn. 166 n.30 and 167-68. Where the alleged harasser is an employee, “an employer will be held liable for harassment perpetrated by its employees if the employer provided no reasonable avenue for complaint, or … the employer knew (or should have known) of the harassment but unreasonably failed to stop it.” (Emphasis omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Brittell v. Dept. of Correction, supra, 167. The standard is essentially a negligence standard that depends upon the gravity of the harassment alleged, the severity and persistence of the harassment, and the effectiveness of any initial remedial steps. Britell, at 168.

On the basis of the defendant’s summary judgment evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, a genuine issue of material fact remains as to whether the defendant’s response to the alleged gender harassment was sufficient to prevent further harassment from taking place. See Whidbee v. Garzarelli Food Specialties, Inc., 223 F.3d 62, 72 (2d Cir. 2000) (“[I]f harassment continues after complaints are made, reasonable jurors may disagree about whether an employer’s response was adequate”).

Based on this, the court held that defendant did not meet its burden of demonstrating the absence of any genuine issue of material fact as to the plaintiff’s Title VII hostile work environment claim.

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