Woman Sues Over Coworkers' Disruptive Porn-Viewing Habits

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Woman Sues Over Coworkers' Disruptive Porn-Viewing Habits

Woman Sues Over Coworkers’ Disruptive Porn-Viewing Habits

Company attempts to have case thrown out because woman was not directly harassed

Let’s face it: After spending 40 hours a week or more with your coworkers, you sometimes end up knowing more about them than you’d like. Frank is going to bring egg salad for lunch at least twice a week. Ginny gets a lot of sinus infections. Rob is likely to disappear to the bathroom for at least 15 minutes after lunch most days.

But what if one of your coworkers does something that is so offensive that it makes it impossible for you to work?

That’s the situation one long-time federal employee recently found herself in when a coworker wouldn’t stop watching online porn at his desk. Worse, her supervisor didn’t seem to think it was a problem.

Let’s take a look at what happened in this case and then talk about how the law treats hostile work environments.

Impossible to ignore

After three decades of working at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Sharon Stewart had dealt with many different coworkers.

However, the person in the cubicle next to hers was becoming pretty hard to take. The man had a habit of watching online pornography during work hours.

In addition to occasionally catching glimpses of the man’s computer screen, Stewart had to deal with the noise…and the crowds.

This staffer liked to share his porn collection with other male employees. According to Stewart, it wasn’t unusual for the man to have several other colleagues in his work area, all providing commentary on the video that was being screened. At those times, Stewart claims that she would be subjected to a chorus of moans, groans, and other noises.

If Stewart was away from her desk, she’d sometimes return to find a “lookout” outside the neighboring cubicle. The man would warn the others that Stewart was returning.

Complaints were blown off

Stewart had had enough. She spoke to her boss about the situation several times, but he dismissed her concerns. She filed a complaint with the agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity officer, but attempts to settle the matter were unsuccessful.

Finally, Stewart decided to sue. She claimed that she’d been subjected to a hostile work environment, among several other unlawful conditions. She alleged that the pornography-viewing by her coworkers had become so severe and pervasive that she was unable to do her job effectively.

She stated that her work environment made her feel unsafe and violated. As proof of what she alleged was a misogynistic office environment, Stewart pointed out that even her boss had admitted to having had intercourse in his office.

The FCC moved to have the case thrown out. It argued that the existence of pornography in the workplace was not enough to create a hostile work environment. It added that Stewart was not directly harassed by any coworkers or made to view any offensive material.

But the court refused to throw out the case.

It pointed out that the existence of the pornography wasn’t the issue. Rather, it was the actions of the people viewing the pornography that were affecting Stewart’s working conditions. Even though Stewart was not forced to view any of the pornographic material, the court noted that it would certainly difficult for her to avoid it based on her proximity to her neighboring coworker.

The case may now proceed to a jury trial.

(The case discussed here is Stewart v. Federal Communications Commission.)

What It Means to You

While many courts have repeatedly stated that they are not “civility police” in the business of reprimanding rude or boorish conduct, it’s important to know that certain behavior can cross the line into unlawful territory.

If you work in an environment in which other workers’ actions make you feel unsafe or prevent you from adequately doing your job, you may be able to pursue a hostile work environment claim.

Call or email us today to discuss your unique situation.

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