A federal district court in California recently held that a male state investigator teased for wearing “girly” clothes stated a claim of sex-based harassment in violation of Title VII and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. Felix v. Calif. Dep’t of Developmental Servs., No. 1:13-cv-00561 (E.D. Cal. July 12, 2013). Robert Felix worked as a special investigator at a California state agency. In April 2013, Felix and his fellow investigator, Jack Phelps, sued their employer for sexual harassment, retaliation, and other assorted discrimination claims under federal and state law.
Felix and Phelps alleged that they suffered more than three years of verbal abuse, teasing, and pranks at the hands of a supervisor and two male co-workers. In particular, Felix claimed that they teased him for wearing pastel-colored or “girly” clothing, joked that Felix and another male employee had piercings on their genitals that were tied together, and commented that Felix went on swinger cruises with his male supervisor. After Felix and Phelps complained to another supervisor about these and other remarks, the alleged harassers continued with their offensive jokes, calling them “rats” or “snitches” and even banging on walls and slamming doors to irritate them.
The defendants moved to dismiss Felix and Phelps’s claims, arguing that though some of the alleged conduct may have been motivated by sex stereotyping, the other incidents of door slamming, etc., were gender neutral. The court held that the allegations of teasing for wearing “girly” clothes and similar remarks sufficiently showed the harassers sexual stereotyping to state a claim of sex-based harassment. According to the court, the long-running jokes and pranks were more than just “simple teasing” or “offhand comments.”
The court also allowed the retaliation claim to go forward, finding that the derogatory name-calling, pranks, and physical intimidation were plausible adverse employment actions. The court also noted that the allegations of being called a “rat” or “snitch” supported allegations of a causal connection between the plaintiffs’ protected activity and the ongoing mistreatment.
The court also allowed Phelps’s claim of age-based harassment to move forward, but dismissed his claims for race and national origin discrimination based on an alleged stereotype that he was a “white redneck.”