In order to state a claim of sexual harassment under federal civil rights laws, a plaintiff must demonstrate that she was subjected to a hostile and offensive working environment. The harassment must interfere with the performance of her work in a manner not tolerable by a reasonable person. This last element was at issue in a case decided last week by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina).
In Okoli v. City of Baltimore, the plaintiff alleged that she had been subjected to a string of sexual propositions, and comments and questions regarding her sexual behavior from her male supervisor. The City contended that this conduct did not rise to the level of an actionable hostile and offensive work environment. Among other things, the City contended that the supervisor's alleged advances could not have interfered with the plaintiff's job performance, because she had received high performance reviews during the time of the alleged harassment.
The Fourth Circuit rejected this contention, reversing a grant of summary judgment for the employer, and remanding the case for jury trial. In its opinion, the court noted that sexual harassment can negatively impact an employee's work, even if it does not result in a deterioration in the employer's evaluation of her work product. The fact that the plaintiff continued to work well through the harassment is to her credit, and does not disqualify her from demonstrating an adverse impact on working conditions.
This case shows that significant harassing behavior in the workplace will serve as the basis for a discrimination lawsuit, even if the plaintiff cannot demonstrate any direct negative effect on job performance. The court will assume that any person subjected to this kind of behavior suffers consequences that result on a negative impact on their overall working experience.