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Former Congressional Staffer Sues Office of Former Boss for Hostile Work Environment and Gender Discrimination

file211246764163Lauren Greene, former New Media Director and later Communications Director for Blake Farenthold, a congressman from Texas and the owner of the domain name “www.blow-me.org” filed suit against her former boss in D.C. federal district court on Friday, December 12.

The complaint alleges that Congressman Farenthold created an “uncomfortable work environment,” according to the Washington Post, when he told another office worker that he had “sexual fantasies” and “wet dreams” about Ms. Greene. The complaint further alleges that the Congressman, on more than one occasion, made comments to Ms. Greene about her appearance and then said “he hoped his comment wouldn’t be taken for sexual harassment.” He told another office worker that Ms. Greene “could show her nipples whenever she wanted to” during a discussion of Ms. Greene’s attire.

The complaint goes on to allege that Acting Chief-of-Staff Bob Haueter treated Ms. Greene in a way that “was intended to, and did, belittle and humiliate Plaintiff” based on her gender. When Ms. Greene told Congressman Farenthold about her concerns, the Congressman said that Mr. Haueter “was known to be condescending toward women on the staff, then paid empty, lip service encouragement for [Ms. Greene] to stand up for herself.”

The situation that Ms. Greene describes in the allegations of her complaint may be reminiscent of something you’ve seen or experienced in your workplace. This seems like a good time to talk about hostile work environments, which we’ve covered in the past here. The first thing to keep in mind is that workplace bullying or harassment not based on protected class is, as a general matter, not illegal. The federally protected classes are race, gender, disability, national origin, age, genetic information, or religion.  Each state can expanded on those protected classes.  In Virginia, for example, marital status is also a protected class.  In some other states, although not in Virginia, sexual orientation is a protected class.

For lack of a better way to phrase it, your boss can be a terrible bully to you all he or she wants as long as the reason for their treatment isn’t your membership in a protected class.  The reasons can be as petty and trivial as them not liking the color of your shirt or just finding you personally annoying.

Beyond that, though, as we’ve said before, if you experience discriminatory treatment at work, you have rights, but not every case of racism or sexism will be seen as a violation of your civil rights under the law. How will you know if the conduct you experience was severe enough to give rise to a hostile work environment?

First, remember that your case is more likely to succeed if you have been subjected to multiple instances of discriminatory treatment. As the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) says, “harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.” Furthermore, “[p]etty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.” Depending on the severity of the conduct, one incident or even incidents occurring over the course of two or three days might be enough to create a hostile work environment, but this is generally quite rare.  Broadly, though, this conduct has to be ongoing for long enough that your acceptance of such conduct is seen to be a term or condition of continued employment.

Second, as the EEOC says, offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to:

  • offensive jokes,
  • slurs,
  • epithets or name calling,
  • physical assaults or threats,
  • intimidation,
  • ridicule or mockery,
  • insults or put-downs,
  • offensive objects or pictures, and
  • interference with work performance.

Third, the harasser can include:

  • the victim’s supervisor,
  • a supervisor in another area,
  • an agent of the employer,
  • a co-worker,
  • or even a non-employee,

and the victim does not have to be the person harassed; the victim can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.

Each situation requires individual analysis.  Contact us if you have been subject to discrimination or harassment based on race, gender, or other protected class status.