Posted 10-06-2010

You might think that the typical sexual harassment case involves a man harassing a woman, and you would be right. But sexual harassment also includes man-to-man, woman-to-woman, and, as recently discussed by a federal appeals court, woman-to-man.

Rudolpho Lamas, a recent widower, worked with Sylvia Munoz, a married woman. Mrs. Munoz became infatuated with Mr. Lamas, and starting sending him love notes and propositioning him. Mr. Lamas complained to the assistant general manager, who told him that he should tell Mrs. Munoz to stop and let management know if she didn’t. Mr. Lamas had already told Mrs. Munoz that he was not interested, but, following the manager’s advice, he told her again. Mrs. Munoz did not stop, but instead gave Mr. Lamas another love note and a picture of herself.

Mr. Lamas next asked for help from his immediate supervisor, who promised to speak to Mrs. Munoz and to the general manager, but did neither. Mrs. Munoz kept it up, and gave Mr. Lamas a third note that was explicitly sexual. By this time, Mrs. Munoz had told other co-workers of her interest in Mr. Lamas, and they began lobbying him on her behalf. He told them he was not interested, and co-workers began taunting Mr. Lamas, accusing him of being gay.

Mr. Munoz then went to the general manager, and asked him to make Mrs. Munoz stop. The manager said he “did not want to get involved in personal matters” but he agreed to speak to Mrs. Munoz as a favor to Mr. Lamas. The manager spoke to Mrs. Munoz and warned her to stop, but she didn’t stop, but instead began making suggestive remarks and gestures whenever she was around Mr. Lamas, on a daily basis.

Mr. Lamas began to feel oppressed and abused by the constant pressure from Mrs. Munoz and co-workers. He felt helpless and cried, and went to a psychologist about his emotional distress. He went back to the assistant general manager, who said the harassment “was a joke” and that Mr. Lamas should “walk around singing to yourself … ‘I’m too sexy for my shirt.'” Although Mr. Lamas had recently been promoted because of his superior customer service skills, his performance deteriorated as the harassment went on, and eventually he was demoted, then fired, for poor performance.

Mr. Lamas complained to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which then filed a sexual harassment lawsuit on his behalf. In a September, 2010 opinion, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that that Mrs. Munoz’s “relentless” pursuit of Mr. Lamas could form the basis of a sexually hostile work environment.

In its opinion, the appeals court firmly rejected the stereotype that a man should welcome sexual attention from a female co-worker:

It cannot be assumed that because a man receives sexual advances from a woman that those advances are welcome…

[T]hat is a stereotype… Title VII is not a beauty contest, and even if Mrs. Munoz looks like Marilyn Monroe, Mr. Lamas might not want to have sex with her, for all sorts of possible reasons. He might feel that fornication is wrong, and that adultery is wrong as is supported by his remark about being a Christian. He might fear her husband. He might fear a sexual harassment complaint or other accusation if her feelings about him changed. He might fear complication in his workday. He might fear that his preoccupation with his deceased wife would take any pleasure out of it. He might just not be attracted to her. He may fear eighteen years of child support payments. He might feel that something was mentally off about a woman that sexually aggressive toward him. Some men might feel that chivalry obligates a man to say yes, but the law does not.

What this means to you:

Mr. Lamas complained four times about Mrs. Munoz’s sexual harassment, but the various managers told him to take care of it himself, promised to take action but didn’t, gave the harasser an ineffectual warning, or advised Mr. Lamas to sing “I’m too sexy for my shirt.” As a result of their failure to take action to stop the harassment, the company is now going to be facing a jury, and the prospect of extensive compensatory and punitive damages. Are you confident that your managers will know what to do and say (and what NOT to do!) when confronted with a complaint of harassment?

Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.