In Dahms v. Cognex Corporation, the SJC affirmed a jury verdict in favor of an employer in a sexual harassment case. Specifically, the SJC held that the trial court appropriately allowed the jury to consider evidence about the plaintiff’s “sexual behavior, general sexual predisposition, and wild nature” in evaluating her hostile work environment claim, reasoning that the evidence was relevant in determining whether the conduct about which the plaintiff complained was truly unwelcome.
Kimberly Dahms, a former director of customer satisfaction for Cognex, claimed that an officer of the company subjected her to quid pro quo sexual harassment, that she had endured a sexually hostile work environment, and that the company had retaliated against her for filing a claim with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). At trial, the court admitted evidence regarding the plaintiff’s dress, speech, and conduct. For example, the trial court allowed testimony that Dahms wore “inappropriately revealing clothing” at work, told “crude jokes,” and made statements about her “sexual preferences” to coworkers. After a jury verdict in favor of the employer, Dahms appealed, arguing that the court’s admission of details regarding her dress, speech, and conduct was inappropriate and prejudicial character evidence.
The SJC held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion since the evidence related to Dahms’s interactions with management and coworkers in the workplace and at work-related events. The Court ruled that the evidence was probative of Dahms’s allegation that she found her work environment to be sexually hostile, noting: “Dahms made relevant her own behavior in the workplace and with coworkers.” The SJC was clear, however, that evidence regarding a plaintiff’s character is not always admissible. Trial judges must be careful to ensure that such evidence is admitted only when its probative value outweighs its potential prejudicial impact on the jury.
This decision affirms that where a plaintiff alleges that he or she has suffered sexually inappropriate actions in the workplace, the plaintiff’s demeanor at work becomes relevant to the claim. To evaluate whether a plaintiff’s work environment is sexually hostile, the fact-finder must consider all relevant facts and circumstances. Establishing that certain workplace incidents were sexually inappropriate does not end a court’s inquiry into a hostile work environment claim. The plaintiff must prove that the actions were personally offensive, and determining this subjective element may require consideration of the plaintiff’s own behavior.