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Court Allowed Harassment Claim based on Lewd Remarks in a Foreign Language and Stares

A recent decision by the Federal Court in Rhode Island is a good reminder that employers are ultimately responsible for employees’ actions even if not authorized.  In Babbitt v. PRI XVII LP, the plaintiff, Odessa Babbitt, complained she was constantly harassed by male co-workers at the Defendant’s hotel where she worked as a room attendant for three months.  Much of the harassment took the form of lewd remarks made in Spanish, a language she did not understand.  However, what she could understand was how male co-workers regularly stared at her body.  Also, on at least one occasion, Babbitt’s supervisor witnessed a co-worker making a lewd comment towards Babbitt, but rather than addressing it, the supervisor rolled her eyes and walked away.

When Babbitt’s employment was terminated only 90 days after it began, she filed a harassment charge claiming she was subjected to a hostile work environment.  While the conduct of Babbitt’s co-workers was certainly appalling, we were surprised that the judge considered it “hostile” enough to let the case go to trial. We have seen many cases involving much more egregious conduct where a judge decided to dismiss the case because the conduct was not “severe and pervasive” enough to affect the plaintiff’s working conditions.

Perhaps one of the things that swayed this particular judge was that the employer appeared to tacitly condone this type of harassment.  Perhaps the supervisor merely rolling her eyes at the lewd remarks gave the impression that the employer believes harassment is no big deal.

The lesson to be learned is that employers are ultimately responsible to keep employees actions in check and to train supervisors to appropriately respond to harassment.  If the employer’s message to supervisors and employees is that harassment is not tolerated, perhaps the harassment would not have occurred, or at least it would have been addressed before it became severe and pervasive.

Brody and Associates regularly provides training and counseling on maintaining a harassment free environment and on employment law issues in general. If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.965.0560.