Why it matters

A New York federal court judge ruled that "girl power" was strong enough to provide the basis for a sex discrimination suit brought by a male employee. Todd Lenart alleged that he experienced a hostile work environment and was discriminated against on the basis of his sex and gender by his female supervisor. Women were given preferential treatment during the hiring process and after they were employed, according to the plaintiff. The supervisor allegedly said she wanted to have a staff of all women and after Lenart was terminated—purportedly due to a reorganization of the department—said she had created a "girl power team based in New York." The employer moved to dismiss the suit but a federal court judge denied the motion. The supervisor's possibly innocuous message of female empowerment, when coupled with the fact that a female took over most of Lenart's duties after his termination, were sufficient allegations to move the case forward on his Title VII and state law claims of sex discrimination. The court dismissed the hostile work environment counts, however.

Detailed discussion

A male tax lawyer, Todd Lenart was hired by Coach in February 2012 after being recruited by the Tax Department's vice president. In a lawsuit alleging discrimination on the basis of his sex and gender as well as a hostile work environment in violation of both Title VII and New York state law, Lenart claimed women were favored even before they were hired by the company.

According to Lenart, he had to interview with 14 people and undergo psychological testing before he was hired. Two women were hired after interviewing with just four individuals and were not required to take any psychological tests, he said.

Once employees began working for Coach, women were "given preferential treatment," Lenart alleged, with a female manager regularly invited to meetings with senior executives while male colleagues were not granted similar access and a female manager in the Tax Department given an office before more senior male members. Male employees complained about the "female gender bias" at the company, and expressed concern that it would prevent them from receiving promotions.

A male coworker reported to Lenart that his female supervisor reportedly said "on numerous occasions" that she would "like to have a staff of all women." Lenart was terminated in April 2013, ostensibly due to a reorganization of the company's Tax Department. But Lenart alleged that most of his responsibilities were taken over by a female employee and a former coworker informed him that his supervisor stated at a meeting after he was terminated that she had created "a girl power team based in New York."

Lenart sued. Coach filed a motion to dismiss the suit but U.S. District Court Judge Jesse M. Furman said the case could move forward on some of the claims.

The court first considered the hostile work environment claim. Under either New York state law or Title VII, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the workplace is "permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment."

Lenart failed to meet this standard, the court said. Some of his allegations were undermined in his own complaint, Judge Furman noted. For example, although Lenart claimed women were favored during the hiring process, he initially rejected the position offered to him because of certain duties he did not want to perform. Coach modified the position to suit his preferences and he took the job. "Needless to say, a company is unlikely to alter duties of a position in order to attract a particular candidate if it was not highly interested in hiring that candidate," the court said.

Lenart himself never heard his supervisor make the alleged comments that she wanted a staff of all women and even if the comments were made on numerous occasions as alleged, he failed to show they were more than isolated acts, the judge said.

The comments about a team of women and "girl power" "amount to nothing more than the workers' subjective beliefs that they were being discriminated against," the judge added. "And, because a hostile work environment claim has both objective and subjective prongs, 'even if [Lenart can] show [his and others'] subjective belief that [his] workplace was hostile,' he must still allege conduct making it plausible that 'a reasonable person would have concluded that the work environment was hostile.' Put simply, the subjective belief of Lenart and his co-workers that there was sex discrimination afoot—'however strongly felt—is insufficient to satisfy his burden at the pleading stage.'"

However, the New York City Human Rights Law has a lower threshold than its state and federal counterparts, Judge Furman said, and all that is generally required is that the plaintiff "proffer evidence of 'unwanted gender-based conduct.'" So Lenart's claims that he had to undergo extra interviews and psychological testing while his female colleagues did not, and the supervisor's expressed preference for working with women, albeit thin, were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.

Turning to Lenart's sex discrimination claims, the court judged it a "close call" but said the complaint satisfied the standard that he was a member of a protected class, was qualified, suffered an adverse employment action, and had "at least minimal support for the proposition that the employer was motivated by discriminatory intent."

The plaintiff alleged that the majority of his responsibilities were assumed by a woman—a claim that standing on its own was sufficient to meet his burden, the court said. In addition, Lenart leaned upon the supervisor's comments that she would prefer to work with women and the "girl power" statement.

"Those statements may well turn out to have been intended as innocuous 'comments of female empowerment,'" the court said. "And it is true that Lenart does not explicitly allege that [the supervisor] herself was involved in the decision to fire him. But given [the supervisor's] senior position as Senior Vice President of the Treasury Department, and the allegation that she had 'managerial or supervisory responsibility' over Lenart, an inference can be drawn that [the supervisor] played a role in the decision to terminate him. In any event, Lenart's allegations that a senior executive made several arguably discriminatory statements, combined with his allegations that a woman assumed most of his duties, are enough to clear the low hurdle" to survive dismissal of his sex discrimination claims in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

To read the opinion in Lenart v. Coach, Inc., click here.