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Fourth Circuit Finds That Pinup Pictures and Demeaning Discussion of Women Created Hostile Working Environment

    Client Alerts
  • June 17, 2011

As reported in EmployNews over the past several years, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina), has consistently lowered the bar for plaintiffs seeking to demonstrate that they were subjected to a hostile and offensive working environment under a Title VII harassment claim. Last month, the court continued this trend, using pictures of scantily clad and nude women as support for its conclusion that the employer allowed creation of a hostile environment.

In Harris v. City of Baltimore, the plaintiff was the only female electrician in a public works facility. She alleged that her male supervisor and co-workers placed numerous pictures of naked women and women in bathing suits on display in the worksite. The plaintiff also offered testimony demonstrating that the men in the workshop regularly referred to women as "sluts, bitches and cunts."

The Fourth Circuit reversed a grant of summary judgment for the City on the plaintiff's hostile environment sexual harassment claim. The court noted a string of recent decisions concluding that a hostile environment is not dependent on the plaintiff being directly subjected to offensive behavior aimed at her. It is enough if the overall depiction and references to women in the workplace make clear that the hostility is based on gender. The court stressed the pictures as a primary reason for concluding that the behavior has become severe and pervasive enough to get over the Title VII hurdle.

In 2011, employers simply cannot tolerate this type of conduct in any of their operations, even those where women have not traditionally worked. As workforces of all types continue to diversify, allowing this kind of "boys' club" behavior invites legal action from women asked to work in these environments.