Many people have worked in a company with an in-house matchmaker whose purpose in life appeared to be setting up his or her co-workers. While usually unwanted and sometimes obnoxious, most employees never thought that such behavior could cause legal issues for their employer. Last month, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a claim by a terminated employee that his complaints about the office matchmaker were protected under Title VII.
In Laincy v. Chatham County Bd. of Assessors, the plaintiff claimed that a co-worker constantly tried to get him to date another co-worker. When she failed to heed his expression of disinterest, the plaintiff complained about her conduct to his supervisors. He alleged that this report resulted in significant problems between him and his female co-workers, and that the County refused his subsequent transfer request. After being fired for performance reasons, the plaintiff sued, alleging retaliation under Title VII.
The Eleventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claim on summary judgment. The court took the position that the alleged matchmaking activities were limited to three occasions. Although the plaintiff may have subjectively considered this to be harassment, the Eleventh Circuit found that as a matter of law this fell short of the standard required for creation of a hostile or offensive working environment. Therefore, the plaintiff's complaints about the matchmaking activity were not protected activity under Title VII.
This decision begs the question of if and when such behavior could cross the line and become sexual harassment. Clearly, inquiries by a co-worker about an employee's dating status, and suggestions about dating another co-worker are not enough to trigger liability. However, employers should take action to stop office matchmaking if the subject of the inquiries is bothered enough to complain to management.