Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects employees against sexual and other types of harassment that result in a hostile and offensive working environment. What happens when the alleged harassment involves customers of the business as victims, and not any of its employees? According to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, harassment situations that only impact customers do not support a claim by an employee of indirect creation of a hostile work environment.
In Edwards v. Ambient Healthcare of Ga., Inc., the plaintiff reported that two female patients of her employer reported to her that a driver delivering pharmaceutical supplies to their homes had acted in a sexually inappropriate manner. When the employer allegedly ignored her complaints, she sued under Title VII claiming that the company had created a sexually hostile working environment and had retaliated against her for reporting the harassment of patients.
The Eleventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of both claims. The plaintiff did not state a claim for relief under Title VII because harassment of non-employees in situations where she did not witness or otherwise have exposure to the conduct cannot as a matter of law result in a hostile working environment toward her. The court questioned whether harassment of non-employees could ever result a hostile working environment for non-victim employees. Similarly, the plaintiff’s retaliation claim failed because she never engaged in a statutorily protected activity. Protesting alleged harassment of non-employees is not protected under Title VII.
For obvious business reasons, most companies would respond to claims that one of their employees is harassing customers. However, alleged failure to take appropriate action in response to such harassment may not even state a claim for relief under federal civil rights laws enacted to protect employees.