Company holiday parties are rife with all kinds of opportunity for employers and employees to cross the line.
Boston sexual harassment lawyers realize that often, these functions are paired with alcohol. When inhibitions are lowered, it can create a hostile environment – or make a bad situation even worse.
That’s exactly what happened in Shiner v. State University of New York et al. , heard recently by the U.S. District Court in the Western District of New York. This was a federal case in which a female employee allegedly suffered extreme sexual harassment at more than one holiday function over the years. Eventually, she filed suit.
The defendant recently moved to dismiss the complaint based on the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), saying that the claims should be solely against the alleged offender – not the employer. However, the court dismissed that request, paving the way for the case to move forward.
We share this as a cautionary tale for both employers and employees. Higher ranking administrators need to exercise caution and a watchful eye at these events to protect the company from liability, while employees need to recognize their rights and not simply give offenders a pass because they may have been intoxicated – particularly if the actions are indicative of an ongoing pattern.
According to court records, the initial complaint was filed in December of last year. The plaintiff had been working as a clerk for the dental school, which holds an annual Christmas party for staffers. Two of those who host the event are supervisors in the department and have authority over the plaintiff, even though she didn’t report directly to them.
When it came time for the party in 2010, she was hesitant to go because she had allegedly been harassed by these two individuals at previous events. The reported harassment involved sexually inappropriate and explicit comments made to her in front of other employees. She reportedly even told her supervisor exactly why she didn’t plan to come.
However, she did attend the party. The event was held at a bar, and she was seated next to both men. Allegedly, both men behaved in a manner that not only clearly violates sexual harassment law, but potentially criminal law as well. Her complaint alleges that the worst of it was carried out by the lower-ranking administrator. According to her complaint, her boss:
- Fondled her breasts;
- Put his mouth on her ear;
- Chased her around the table;
- Grabbed both the plaintiff and another female employee by their necks and proceeded to bend them over a table;
- Pushed the plaintiff’s and another female employee’s faces together and demanded that they begin kissing;
- Told the plaintiff he wanted to engage in sexual activity with her and the other female employee;
- Pulled the plaintiff onto his lap and asked her to meet him somewhere after the party;
- Roughly pinched and squeezed her ribs when she tried to get away from him.
She further alleges that the higher-ranking administrator verbally encouraged all of this behavior.
The next day, she reportedly told her co-workers and her immediate supervisor about what had happened and indicated she was extremely upset and humiliated. The supervisor reportedly instructed her to take action, to which the plaintiff replied it was her boss who was supposed to take action.
The plaintiff did end up filing a complaint with the school, and disciplinary action was ultimately taken against against the lower-ranking administrator, but not the higher-ranking administrator.
The employee subsequently decided to file a lawsuit.
While this may seem an extreme example, holiday parties often provide just such an environment. Just because you are at an after-hours event, doesn’t mean you are not protected from such treatment under the law.
The Brown Law Firm, LLC, has offices in Belmont and Boston. For a free and confidential consultation, call 617-489-0817 or contact us online.
Lesley Shiner v. State University of New York, Nov. 2, 2012, U.S. District Court, Western District of New York
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