Touching in the “Crotch Area” Only A Few Times Doesn’t Create a Hostile Work Environment

Randi Klein Hyatt
Randi Klein Hyatt

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals  held that a female African American travelling phlebotomist’s claims of hostile work environment, constructive discharge, and retaliation for allegedly failing to adequately mitigate sexual and racial harassment by a nursing home patient were properly dismissed. The patient’s conduct was not so severe that it rose to the level of actionable hostile work environment sexual harassment. Likewise, the employee was not constructively discharged or retaliated against. Watson v. Heartland Health Laboratories, Inc., No. 14-2402 (8th Cir. Jun. 25, 2015).

Chavonya Watson was hired as a “route phlebotomist.” She was responsible for traveling to several facilities each day to draw blood and collect samples from the facilities’ patients. Within months of starting work, she was allegedly accosted by a nursing home patient while attempting to take his blood. Ms. Watson claimed that the patient rubbed her thigh with his hand and touched her “crotch area” several times. She immediately reported the incident to her supervisor. Though Ms. Watson no longer had to take blood from the harassing patient, she had to continue visiting the client site to see other patients.

Thereafter, Ms. Watson reported that the harassing patient called her derogatory terms relating to her race and gender no less than eight times during a two-week period. She then stopped reporting to work. Her employer believed she quit. Ms. Watson then filed a lawsuit claiming that the patient’s actions amounted to racial and sexual harassment that created a hostile work environment. She also tacked on constructive discharge and retaliation charges.

The employer moved for summary judgment, arguing that because the harassing patient’s conduct did not affect a term, condition or privilege of her employment, Ms. Watson could not establish a hostile work environment. The Eighth Circuit agreed (assuming for the sake of argument that the employer could even be held liable for third-party harassment), holding that a reasonable person would not have found Ms. Watson’s work environment intolerable. While offensive comments and touching can suffice for a hostile work environment claim, here Ms. Watson only worked at the client site for a few hours per day and each interaction with the harassing patient was brief. According to the court, an objective person would not find the patient’s conduct, which only lasted a few seconds per incident, “sufficiently pervasive to poison [Ms.] Watson’s work environment or permeate it with intimidation, ridicule, and insult.” Thus, Ms. Watson was not subject to harassing conduct throughout her workday.

Additionally, the employer prevailed on the constructive discharge and retaliation claims. The court found that Ms. Watson was not reasonable in voluntarily abandoning her job. As to her retaliation claim, the court held that because Ms. Watson did not suffer any adverse action as a result of her complaints against the patient nor did she show any causal connection between any action her employer took and the complaints she made, she failed to establish a claim.


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