Under Title VII, employers have an obligation to address sexual harassment by a co-worker or third party once they have been placed on notice that it is occurring. A new case from the First Circuit Court of Appeals concludes that in order to trigger these protections, the employee must notify the employer that the harassment is sexual in nature.

Medina-Rivera v. MVM, Inc. involved an employee who worked for a company providing contract security services to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She complained to her supervisor that an unnamed ICE agent was bothering her at home by repeatedly calling her personal phone. She later alleged that she was sexually assaulted by the agent, and sued her employer, claiming that it failed to respond to her earlier sexual harassment complaint.

The First Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendant. The court noted that not all harassment violates Title VII. In order to be placed on legal notice, the employer must have adequate information that would lead it to conclude that the alleged harassment is sexual in nature or gender based. In this case, the plaintiff only told her supervisor that the agent was bothering her. She did not identify him, so the contractor could not tie the complaint to any knowledge of his previous misconduct.

The court noted that in order to raise a complaint of sexual harassment, employees do not have to use that specific term or any particular words. However, the plaintiff here did not provide a minimal connection between her complaints and sexually-related behavior. Some courts may infer that off-duty calls to a female employee's personal number are likely to be sexual in nature, but the lack of specificity in this case doomed the plaintiff's claims.