For the second time in as many weeks, a federal appeals court decision rests on the determination that an alleged harasser who makes gender-specific slurs and comments can create a hostile work environment for a female employee, even though the harasser is an “Equal Opportunity Harasser” who makes crass and offensive remarks to “everyone, regardless of gender.” Sharon Kaytor v. Electric Boat Corp., 2d Circ., No. 09-1859-cv, June 29, 2010.

Sharon Kaytor worked for Electric Boat Corporation for nearly 20 years as an administrative assistant, beginning in 1998. During most of that time, Kaytor worked for Daniel McCarthy, one of the managers in the engineering department. Kaytor alleges that in 2004, McCarthy seemed to “undergo a change of character.” Although he didn’t touch Kaytor in a sexual or violent way, McCarthy allegedly began to make inappropriate remarks to Kaytor including references to her body and how she smelled. Further, according to Kaytor, on nearly a dozen occasions, McCarthy threatened to hurt, choke, or kill her. At first, Kaytor ignored the remarks, knowing that McCarthy was going through a divorce. However, in April 2005, Kaytor informed McCarthy that she was going to report certain offensive remarks that he had made regarding Kaytor’s visit to her gynecologist. In response, McCarthy is alleged to have stated “I’ll kill you” if a report was made. Subsequently, for Administrative Assistants’ Day, McCarthy gave to Kaytor a potted plant – a pussy willow – with an arguably sexual message attached to it.

After that incident, Kaytor complained about McCarthy to HR. Immediately following the report, Kaytor was transferred to work for an engineer who reported directly to McCarthy, and who – according to Kaytor – treated her “poorly,” changing her work hours, and screaming at her for the “whole department” to hear.

Although Kaytor continued to work for Electric Boat, she filed administrative charges and, ultimately, in December 2006, a lawsuit alleging retaliation at her job. The lower court granted summary judgment for the company, saying that the incidents complained of by Kaytor were not sufficiently severe and pervasive to constitute a sexually hostile work environment. The court specifically held that “a reasonable jury” could not infer that the multiple threats to kill Kaytor were made “because of Plaintiff’s sex,” and concluded that, absent those threats, the other incidents complained of were not pervasive enough to adversely affect Kaytor’s work environment. The lower court also pointed out that because McCarthy was crass with everyone, regardless of their gender, he was not targeting Kaytor because of her sex.

The Second Circuit disagreed, finding that a rational jury could infer from McCarthy’s sexual comments and inappropriate remarks that the gender neutral threats of violence that he directed toward Kaytor were, in fact, because of her gender. Further, in response to the “Equal Opportunity Harasser” argument, the appellate court pointed out a prior case in which it held that “the inquiry into whether ill treatment was actually sex-based discrimination cannot be short-circuited by the mere fact that both men and women are involved . . . . It would be exceedingly perverse if a male [supervisor] could buy . . . his company immunity from Title VII liability by taking care to harass sexually an occasional male worker, though his preferred targets were female.”

The important issue for employers is that a court’s analysis of whether harassment is “based on sex” will take into account the totality of the circumstances, and will consider both the complainant’s reaction to events and whether a reasonable person would find such events abusive. In addition, evidence that the alleged harasser may have had “designs” on the complainant (as Kaytor alleged that McCarthy had, in this case, based upon his comments about her body and her scent) will add context to other remarks that may not include sexual references or gender-based comment. Importantly, a company must recognize that the fact that an harasser also makes remarks to male employees will not, by itself, serve as a defense to claims for sexual harassment or hostile environment.