The presence of pornographic materials in the workplace can clearly contribute toward creation of a hostile and offensive working environment, capable of supporting a sexual harassment claim under Title VII. However, as demonstrated by a new Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals case, not all such cases will result in designation of the requisite hostile workplace. In Coolidge v. Consol. City of Indianapolis, the suit was filed by a female police crime lab employee who alleged that a male co-worker intentionally left several unmarked videotapes out from the evidence cabinet. When the plaintiff viewed them to learn their contents, she discovered that the tapes contained extremely graphic pornography.
The Seventh Circuit concluded that in this particular business context, the plaintiff’s viewing of the videotapes was not enough to create a hostile and offensive working environment under Title VII. First, she admitted that she only viewed the tapes for a very brief time sufficient to ascertain their contents. Second, the crime lab constantly dealt with corpses, graphic crime scenes, and other matters not present in the typical workplace. The court cited Supreme Court precedent stating that the question of hostile work environments depends upon the context in which the plaintiff encounters the behavior. For example, behavior in a white-collar office environment is not expected to have the same kind of social interaction as may be present in a manufacturing facility.
Obviously, employer should never tolerate the presence of pornography in the workplace (with the possible exception of police evidence files). However, not every employee encounter with such materials will automatically result in legal liability. Employers faced with lawsuits alleging hostile environment sexual harassment can defend the claims based on the expectation that employees tolerate some level of unpleasant and offensive behavior in the workplace.