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Court says boss's shoulder touching not sexual harassment

Readers in New York may be interested in the recent case of a female sales manager who filed a hostile work environment claim against her former boss. The woman says she suffered sexual harassment while in the car with her then-supervisor after attending a training session. The court disagreed, but its ruling could give those filing future claims clearer guidelines that could help ensure their success.

The woman who filed suit said her supervisor was adamant that she travel with him after a work-related dinner had ended. During the ride to the hotel at which they were staying, the supervisor allegedly put his arm around the woman's shoulder and kept it there long enough to make her uncomfortable. He then reportedly told the woman she was in his debt and should take steps to rectify that situation.

Although uneasy about the situation, the woman did not report the situation at the time and her supervisor's behavior was apparently not repeated. The court later used those facts to determine that the woman did not meet the standard for proving sexual harassment. It said that, although the woman undoubtedly felt uncomfortable during the car ride in question, discomfort was not the determining factor in deciding her case. Instead, the behavior had to be done frequently and permeate the workplace environment to be considered actionable.

The court outlined several other instances in which the behavior would be considered harassment. They said it must be pervasive and, with a few exceptions, must continue repeatedly over a length of time. A sole incident can be considered harassment if it is sufficiently hostile or threatening, such as threats of rape or personal contact, according to the court's ruling.

Although in this specific instance the sexual harassment claims were discounted, employees in New York and elsewhere should not be discouraged from filing claims of their own when they are warranted. Sexual harassment laws are there to ensure it does not invade the workplace. When it does, its victims have the right to take action. Each time they do the law becomes better defined creating better odds for success in the future.

Source: Bloomberg BNA, First Circuit Says Boss's Shoulder Touching Not Severe or Pervasive Sexual Harassment, Jay-Anne B. Casuga, Feb. 4, 2014

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