Male employee fails to state case of sex discrimination or sexual harassment

Image: Shutterstock

Image: Shutterstock

The employee, a male executive, failed to allege claims for actionable sex discrimination and sexual harassment where he failed to allege that the complained-of conduct occurred because he was a man. This case is a good case for employers to be familiar with because it illuminates Title VII’s “because of sex” requirement.

Background

The employee worked as the Chief Financial Officer for the employer. The employee alleged that his direct supervisor, who was a married man, required him to “organize rendezvous and dalliances with female companions,” go to strip clubs, search for women on the internet, and meet with escorts while on business trips. The employee complained of these requirements to the supervisor and alleges he was immediately fired.

The employee then filed a lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The employee brought claims for discrimination, sexual harassment (hostile work environment), and retaliation. The employer moved to dismiss the employee’s lawsuit and argued that even if everything the employee alleged was true, such conduct was not illegal under Title VII.

Court’s Decision

The court began its analysis by noting that in order to prevail on his discrimination and hostile work environment claims, the employee had to show that the complained-of conduct occurred “because of” the employee’s sex. On this point, the employee argued that similarly-situated female executives were not required to undertake any of the complained-of conduct that the supervisor required of the employee. If this argument was accepted, it would show that the supervisor treated the employee differently from his female co-workers because of his sex. The court, however, concluded that these female executives were not in fact similarly situated because “each had different job titles and worked in different areas” when compared to the employee. Thus, the court rejected the employee’s argument.

The court went on to point out that the employee failed to allege that his termination was caused by his gender and also failed to allege that the supervisor’s conduct was severe and pervasive enough to support a hostile work environment claim. While the court stated that it did not “admire” the supervisor’s behavior, it also highlighted that the conduct was not physically or verbally threatening, intimidating, or abusive. Accordingly, the court found that the employee’s discrimination and hostile work environment claims were not actionable as alleged.

Similarly, the court found that the employee’s retaliation claim had to fail because when the employee complained to his supervisor about the conduct in question, he made no “reference to discrimination, retaliation, or any Title VII protected activity.” Further, the court noted that the employee did not even suggest that the complained-of conduct was based on the employee’s gender. Quoting from a previously decided case, the court wrote: “a general complaint of unfair treatment does not translate into a charge of illegal discrimination.” Therefore, the court found the employee’s retaliation claim also failed.

Takeaway

This decision may be surprising to some readers. The conduct at issue here is both clearly inappropriate for the workplace and of a sexual nature. These two facts would lead many to conclude that the supervisor’s behavior here must, therefore, constitute hostile work environment sexual harassment or sex discrimination. But as this case demonstrates, such is not necessarily true. Title VII protects against adverse employment actions being motivated by protected characteristics including sex, race, national origin, and religion among others. Offensive conduct that is not motivated by a protected characteristic is not actionable. Many courts have repeated that Title VII is not a “general civility code,” and this case represents a clear example of that principle.

R. Eddie Wayland is a partner with the law firm of King & Ballow.  You may reach Mr. Wayland at (615) 726-5430 or at rew@kingballow.com.  The foregoing materials, discussion and comments have been abridged from laws, court decisions, and administrative rulings and should not be construed as legal advice on specific situations or subjects.