The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a female co-worker’s “relentless” pursuit of a male employee, including verbal comment and suggestive notes, could form the basis of a sexually hostile environment, even without any physical conduct of a sexual nature. EEOC v. Prospect Airport Services, Inc., 9th Cir., No. 07-17221, Sept. 3, 2010.

Rudolpho Lamas began working for Prospect Airport Services in the Spring of 2002, shortly after the death of his wife in September of 2001. In the Fall of 2002, and without instigation from Lamas, a married female co-worker (Munoz) began to make sexual overtures toward Lamas after she heard that he had stated that he “missed coming home to a family.” In November, Munoz handed a note to Lamas, telling him she was “turned on” and wanted to “go out” with him. Lamas informed their boss (O’Neill) about the note, and was advised to let Munoz know that he wasn’t interested, and to tell Prospect’s managers if Munoz continued her actions. Although Lamas let Munoz know that her interest was not reciprocal, Munoz continued her advances, including additional notes and a photo of herself that Lamas found to be sexually suggestive. At this point, Munoz reported the continued activity to another company supervisor (Thompson), who told Lamas that she would report the incidents to the general manager (Mitchell) and talk to Munoz. She did neither.

At that point, Lamas received a third, and more explicit, note from Munoz; Lamas reported this note directly to Mitchell. At that point, Munoz had also recruited other co-workers to let Lamas know how she felt. In response to Lamas’ report, Mitchell said that he “did not want to get involved in personal matters” but ultimately spoke to Munoz and told her that Lamas wanted the activity to stop.

Unfortunately, the activity did not stop; it escalated into daily comments and suggestive remarks from Munoz. This continued through the Spring of 2003. At one point, Munoz made sexual comments to Lamas in front of airline passengers, embarrassing both Lamas and the passengers. Although Lamas had reported his concerns to four different managers, no remedial action was taken. In fact one of the managers told Lamas that the whole thing was “a joke” and that he should be singing “I’m too sexy for my shirt.” Lamas began to have problems at work, including the fact that his co-workers started rumors that Lamas was gay because he was rebuffing Munoz’ approaches. Lamas’ work performance deteriorated, and he ultimately was fired for poor performance in June 2003.

Lamas took his complaint to the EEOC, which found enough factual basis to support a hostile work environment, and filed suit on his behalf. The district court granted Prospect’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that Munoz’ conduct was not “severe and pervasive” enough to support a claim for hostile work environment. In its opinion, the court stated that Munoz’ conduct was not objectively unwanted for most men, and that “most men in [Lamas’] circumstances would have ‘welcomed’ the behavior he alleged was discriminatory.”

The lower court’s dismissal was reversed on appeal to the Ninth Circuit, which pointed out that under Title VII, “[b]oth sexes are protected from discrimination.” The appellate court pointed out that “it cannot be assumed that because a man receives sexual advances from a woman that those advances are welcome.” This is a stereotype that the court refused to accept, and pointed out that “welcomeness” is an inherently subjective issue. However, it also added that unwelcomeness has to be communicated. Here, Lamas not only expressed his refusal to Munoz, he also continually stated – to his co-workers, his friends, and four different company managers – that his Christian background and the recent death of his wife led him to find Munoz’ actions inappropriate and offensive. The Court also pointed out that while not all propositions for romance are sexual harassment, Munoz’ conduct, including the continued advances after Lamas’ rejection, her involvement of co-workers in her efforts, the suggestive photograph, and her “relentless” sexual remarks created an environment that Lamas reasonably perceived as hostile and abusive.

Notably, the Court also pointed out that the company’s actions were insufficient to establish an affirmative defense to Lamas’ complaints. Prospect’s managers did little or nothing in response to Lamas’ reports, instead telling him he should be singing “I’m too sexy for my shirt.” While that remark is troubling, the fact that the complaints by Lamas were made by a man regarding the actions of a woman may have created a skewed response from the company. Employers must recognize that Title VII protects both genders, and that a male employee’s report of harassment should be investigated and responded to as effectively as one made by a female employee.