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
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.