Not unless it’s based on gender – a court recently rejected a plaintiff’s sexual harassment claim because there was no evidence that the alleged harasser’s fat jokes and other inappropriate behaviors were based on gender.
In Carboni v. Fort Wayne Community School Corp., the plaintiff was a teacher who alleged that her mentor, a middle school principal, subjected her to unlawful sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by acting like a middle school student, not a principal. Civ. No. 1:12-CV-167 (N.D. Ind., Sep. 15, 2014). The plaintiff alleged that the principal made jokes about people, particularly women, being fat. She alleged that he would “would approach a coworker, yell ‘spider,’ raise his leg, and pass gas directly at the coworker.” She also alleged that he frequently used the F-word in the presence of co-workers. Despite this objectionable behavior, the principal gave the plaintiff a positive review.
In rejecting the plaintiff’s claim, the court explained that “many of the complaints about [the principal’s] behavior lack any sexual or gender component, character, or overtones, and the Plaintiff makes no attempt to explain how these actions were directed at her because of her gender.” Much of the conduct was directed at both male and female employees, and frequently was not directed at the plaintiff at all.
The only potential gender component of the plaintiff’s claim was the principle’s telling of fat jokes, which the plaintiff characterized as “fat woman jokes.” But the court found that “[i]f anything, his misconduct was focused on weight, not gender.” Because the plaintiff did not produce sufficient evidence that the principal’s misconduct was based on gender, the court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the plaintiff’s sexual harassment claim.
Takeaway: Anti-discrimination laws do not totally prohibit people from acting in an immature or crass manner. It is generally lawful for co-workers and supervisors to act like jerks – or middle school students, for that matter – provided that the conduct is not based on a protected category, like gender, race, or religion. Even then, the conduct must be sufficiently severe so that “that discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult permeated the workplace” in order to be actionable.