A federal district court has ruled that asking a female receptionist to make and serve coffee to male supervisors does not constitute sex discrimination or sexual harassment. Klopfenstein v. Nat’l Sales & Supply LLC, Civil Action No. 07-4004, 2008 WL 2331948 (E.D. Pa. June 5, 2008), aff’d, No. 08-2950, 2009 WL 1132337 (3rd Cir. Apr. 28, 2009). In Klopfenstein, the plaintiff had been hired as a part-time receptionist and was told in her interview that her supervisors expected her to get coffee for them, as well as any visitors. The prior receptionist had performed these tasks without objection.

The plaintiff believed that the request to serve her supervisors coffee was demeaning and embarrassing and sent them an e-mail stating that while she did not object to serving coffee to guests, she did not “expect to serve and wait on” her supervisors by serving coffee to them every day. She also claimed in the e-mail that she would not have accepted the position had she known that serving coffee to them would be part of her daily responsibilities. Nine minutes after the plaintiff sent the e-mail, Rich Blum, one of her supervisors, responded by stating, “I’m sorry it didn’t work out so please pack up your things. We will send you your last check next week.”

The plaintiff realized that her job had been terminated, but asked Blum if she could work the remainder of the day. Blum told the plaintiff that she would be paid for the entire day, regardless of whether she worked for the remainder of the work day, but that she could stay if she preferred. As she was leaving Blum’s office, the plaintiff told him that she would be filing a complaint, which Blum properly understood to be a complaint with the EEOC. Blum reacted by telling the plaintiff to leave the office without finishing the day. Nevertheless, the plaintiff received her salary for the entire day. According to the defendant, the plaintiff’s supervisors had actually discussed terminating plaintiff a week before she was fired because she failed to relay important messages, placed the wrong pricing labels on packages, mispronounced customers’ names and failed to offer coffee to guests. The plaintiff’s e-mail served as the last straw.

The court granted summary judgment with respect to the plaintiff’s claims of retaliation, sexual harassment and gender discrimination. With respect to retaliation, the plaintiff claimed that Blum unlawfully retaliated against her when he prevented her from completing the workday after learning that she planned to file an EEOC complaint. The defendant argued that Blum’s acts were irrelevant given the fact that the plaintiff had already been terminated from her position and the company still paid her for an entire day of work. The court held that the defendant did not engage in a material adverse action by sending the plaintiff home early after her termination. The court reasoned that before the plaintiff announced that she intended to file a complaint, she had already been terminated and was told that she would be paid for the remainder of the day regardless of whether she worked or not. Therefore a “reasonable worker would not be dissuaded from pursuing a charge of discrimination due to his or her employer’s post termination hostilities — if anything, such a worker’s resilience in pursuing those charges would likely be emboldened.”

The court also rejected the plaintiff’s claims of sexual harassment based on a hostile work environment or quid pro quo. Noting that a hostile work environment claim does not need to be based on the showing of sexual overtones in every instance, the court recognized “that in the context of other indicators of sexism, getting coffee could evince a discriminatory intent.” However, by itself, getting coffee is not a gender-specific act and there was no evidence of other inappropriate conduct, such as physical gestures intended to intimidate the plaintiff or demeaning or offensive statements even remotely related to sex or gender. The court explained that other than being told to bring her supervisors coffee, there was “no indication that Plaintiff was asked to perform any acts that conform to traditional gender-specific stereotypes, either inside or outside of the workplace.” On the other hand, the defendant demonstrated that prior receptionists were required to serve coffee to both guests and supervisors and that plaintiff did not find the requirement of providing coffee to guests demeaning. The court concluded that the hostile work environment claim failed because there was little in the record, “other than Plaintiff’s own subjective speculation,” indicating that she was treated differently because of her sex.

The court also ruled that the plaintiff’s claim of quid pro quo harassment was meritless because she could not show that her supervisors made any sexual advances toward her. The plaintiff pointed to an e-mail she received from Mike Sanchez, a sales manager but not one of her supervisors, stating “Hey, I was thinking maybe we should go to lunch on Friday together?....... Thoughts? I feel bad you have been working here for a couple of weeks and we haven’t gotten to know each other yet[.]” The court found that Sanchez’s e-mail was “entirely innocuous, if not friendly, and is void of a suggestive or sexual overtone.” Further, even if the plaintiff could show that it was a sexual advance, she could not demonstrate that she suffered any tangible employment action resulting from her refusal to accept the invitation, given that Sanchez was not her supervisor, he played no role in her termination and there was no evidence that her refusal to have lunch with Sanchez was a factor in the decision to terminate her employment.

The court further rejected the plaintiff’s argument for a “quasi” quid pro quo framework where “the requirement that an employee conform to an outdated gender stereotype” would also trigger the quid pro quo analysis. The court declined to adopt such a framework and noted that even under the plaintiff’s suggested theory, her claim would fail because she failed to show “any discriminatory motive or intention to pigeonhole Plaintiff into a gender stereotype.”

Finally, the court held that the plaintiff was not able to establish a prima facie case of gender discrimination. It explained that the “isolated fact that Plaintiff was required to get coffee for her superiors” did not, on its own, give rise to an inference of discrimination as a matter of law. In fact, given that no men had held the receptionist position before, during or after her employment, the plaintiff could not argue that she was treated differently than other similarly situated employees of a non-protected class.

Practical Tips

Managers and supervisors must consider whether it is appropriate in their particular work circumstances to ask receptionists, secretaries, assistants or other support staff of either gender to get or serve them beverages or meals, unless it is part of a formal client meeting. Certainly, doing so occasionally should not result in a violation of applicable law, but the supervisor should make sure he or she asks employees to complete this task without discriminating based on sex, race, age or any other protected status. Needless to say, staff should not be expected to pay for a supervisor’s coffee or meals out of the employee’s own pocket.