When employers give examples of sexual harassment, they usually include things like unwanted touching, teasing, questions about sex, insults or unwanted advances. However, the concept of what may constitute harassing activity under Title VII is expanding. A new case from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals shows that this definition may include supervisor behavior that may not at first be thought to be based on sex.
Hall v. Chicago involved a plumber who was the only female employee in her division. She alleged that her male supervisor kept her isolated from other employees, and assigned her meaningless or menial tasks. She also alleged that the supervisor made physically threatening comments toward her and on at least one occasion intentionally bumped her when passing her in the workplace. The trial court dismissed the claim on the basis that the allegations did not constitute a hostile and offensive working environment under Title VII.
The Seventh Circuit reversed this dismissal, remanding the case for jury trial. Although conceding that it was a close call, the court said that the supervisor's alleged behavior must be viewed as a whole, and not as a series of individual incidents. While none of the incidents by themselves rose to the level of a hostile environment, collectively they met this threshold under Title VII. The Seventh Circuit focused on the verbally and physically aggressive behavior as particularly important in determining the context of the isolating behavior.
This case demonstrates that sexual harassment does not need to be based on sexual desire. There were no allegations that the supervisor in question ever propositioned or expressed any sexual interest in the plaintiff. Instead, the plaintiff's case was based on claims that the supervisor was hostile to the presence of women in the workplace. Actions like isolating employees from their co-workers, if based on sex, constitute sexual harassment under Title VII and subject the employer to claims for damages and injunctive relief.