U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds Same-Sex Harassment Claim

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sexual harassment in employment. In 1998, the United States Supreme Court held in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs., Inc. that sexual harassment also included same-sex harassment and violated Title VII. Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which covers New York, Vermont and Connecticut, reversed a decision of a District Court in the Western District of New York, dismissing a same-sex harassment claim on summary judgment grounds. The Second Circuit concluded that there was ample evidence and issues of fact that could support a jury verdict in favor of the harassed employee.
In Barrows v. Seneca Foods Corp., Jeffrey Barrows alleged that his male supervisor, Victor Sanabria, sexually harassed him by touching his genitals and otherwise creating a hostile working environment on the basis of sex. Among other things, Sanabria referred to Barrows as a “faggot” and leveled vulgar sexual comments at him during work. In addition, Barrows alleged that Sanabria had likewise harassed other men in similar fashion, but not women. The District Court for the Western District of New York had previously dismissed the lawsuit, holding that “there was no evidence that [Barrows] had suffered discrimination because of his sex.” (emphasis in original).
The Second Circuit reversed, noting that under the Supreme Court’s decision in Oncale, the focus on whether sexual harassment has occurred is on “whether members of one sex are exposed to disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment [e.g. hostile work environment] to which members of the other sex are not.” Indeed, this is the very essence of a sexual harassment claim, and it does not matter that the harasser and victim are of the same sex. In addition, in order for the sexual harassment to be illegal, it needed to be “severe or pervasive.” The Second Circuit held that a jury could find that “Sanabria treated women better than men and that, therefore, men were ‘exposed to [a] disadvantageous term[ ] or condition [ ] of employment to which [women] were not.'” (alterations in original).
Same-sex harassment cases tend to cause difficulties for courts because Title VII does not prohibit sexual orientation discrimination. Consequently, the same-sex harassment must rise to the level of sex discrimination in order to be illegal under Title VII. Under the New York State Human Rights Law and New York City Human Rights law, sexual orientation discrimination, including harassment, is illegal. Thus, many same-sex harassment cases are asserted as sexual orientation harassment claims under those New York laws.