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In order to shield employers from having to accommodate the idiosyncratic concerns of the rare hyper-sensitive employee, female plaintiff states a prima facie case of hostile environment sexual harassment when she alleges conduct which a reasonable woman would consider sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment.
Appellant employee, Kerry Ellison, worked as a revenue agent for the Internal Revenue Service in San Mateo, California. In June of 1986 when no one else was in the office, a co-worker, Sterling Gray, asked Ellison to lunch. She accepted. Appellant alleged that after the lunch, Gray started to pester her with unnecessary questions and hang around her desk. Gray then repeatedly wrote notes to appellant. Gray was transferred to the San Francisco office; however, after six months, the management decided to have Gray return to the San Mateo office. Appellant filed a formal complaint alleging sexual harassment with the IRS. The IRS Treasury Department found that the complaint did not describe a pattern or practice of sexual harassment covered by the EEOC regulations. The EEOC affirmed on a different ground. It concluded that the agency took adequate action to prevent the repetition of Gray's conduct. Appellant filed a complaint in federal district court, which then granted the government's motion for summary judgment on the ground that appellant had failed to state a prima facie case of sexual harassment due to a hostile working environment. Appellant challenged the decision.
Did the appellant fail to state a prima facie case of sexual harassment, thereby warranting the grant of summary judgment in favor of the government?
On review, the court established the reasonable victim standard for sexual harassment. Applying the standard to appellant's case, the court concluded that a reasonable woman could consider the co-worker's behavior to be sufficiently severe and pervasive to alter the conditions of appellant's employment and create an abusive working environment. The court also found that genuine issues of material fact remained concerning whether the appellee's response to the co-worker's conduct was sufficient under Title VII. The district court was directed to consider the reasonableness of the appellee's decision to remedy the harassment by transferring the co-worker and appellant to different locations. The case was reversed and remanded.