Second Circuit Clarifies Proof Necessary to Establish a Hostile Work Enviroment Claim

In Pucino v. Verizon Communications, Inc. (“Verizon”), the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (which covers New York, Connecticut and Vermont) reversed a decision by a New York federal court granting summary judgment in favor of Verizon on a former employee’s gender-based hostile work environment claims.

Joan Pucino worked for Verizon for 20 years before retiring in 2002. She was one of approximately 5 women who worked in Verizon’s Technician Garage at any given time—compared with nearly 60-110 male field technicians. Ms. Pucino was assigned less desirable work than her male co-workers. Specifically, she was often sent to work by herself in unsafe areas, denied assistance, had her work monitored, was denied the tools necessary to perform her job, and was not given overtime assignments.
Ms. Pucino was frequently referred to as a “bitch” and “stupid” among other profanities and insults. Her claims were substantiated by several witnesses. The unfair treatment, harassment and abuse led Ms. Pucino to file a complaint with Verizon’s internal equal employment opportunity hotline. Ms. Pucino suffered retaliation as a result of her internal complaint and, therafter, filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Following the EEOC’s investigation, Ms. Pucino commenced a civil action in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.
In order to maintain a claim for a sexually hostile work environment under federal law, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the hostility was “severe or pervasive” enough to alter the conditions of her employment. The abusive conduct must be based on sex, and show a “general hostility to the presence of women in the workplace.” The Second Circuit held that Ms. Pucino had offered sufficient evidence for a jury to determine that the alleged harassment was sex-based. The Second Circuit further held that a combination of both “disparate treatment and gender-based verbal abuse can support an inference of discrimination based upon gender.”
In addition, the Second Circuit clarified that a plaintiff seeking to prevail on a discriminatory harassment claim need not recount each and every instance of abuse to show pervasiveness sufficient to create a hostile work environment.
The court’s opinion, however, is not without its flaws. For instance, in dicta, the court stated that use of the word “bitch” may not automatically command an inference of gender-based hostility. The court agreed, however, that whether such inference may be made is for a jury to decide. Ultimately, the Second Circuit’s decision is a favorable one for employees that provides further clarification on hostile work environment claims.
Hostile work environment claims, whether based upon sex, race, age, national origin, or other protected basis, are subject to different standards under the New York City Human Rights Law. Although federal law requires that an employee prove that the conduct was “severe or pervasive,” under the New York City Human Rights Law, such a showing is not necessary. Under the New York City law, an employee need only show that the employee was treated differently than others outside the employee’s protected category. We discussed this difference in our February 20, 2009 Blog, New York Appellate Court Recognizes Lower Standard for Proving Discrimination Under New York City Human Rights Law. This distinction reflects another reason that New York City workers receive more employment-related protections than employees throughout New York State.

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