Last week, a federal district court in New Orleans awarded a male employee of a construction company $451,000 in damages in a sex discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The plaintiff was an ironworker who alleged that his male supervisor taunted and harassed him because he perceived him as feminine. The EEOC contended that this was gender stereotyping prohibited under Title VII.
The jury agreed, awarding $1000 in actual damages, and $450,000 in punitive and emotional distress damages. The EEOC contended that male on male sexual harassment violates Title VII, even when there is no evidence of sexual interest on the part of the harasser. It is enough for the harassment to occur due to stereotypes about acceptable gender behavior in the workplace.
This gender stereotyping theory has been attempted by a number of plaintiffs in areas of the U.S. that do not prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. Federal courts have split on the ability to use Title VII for these claims. This decision demonstrates that the EEOC will aggressively prosecute gender stereotype cases. Employer anti-harassment policies and training should include prohibitions against teasing or other behavior that is based on perceptions over how members of one gender are supposed to act.