"Hostile Work Environment": Moakler v. County of Orange

Appellate Court addresses what constitutes a hostile work environment, specifically the requirement that the conduct be "continuous and pervasive."

Facts

Pamela Moakler, the Executive Director of the Office of Aging filed suit against her former employer, the County of Orange and Chris Norby, a county Supervisor for sexual harassment and retaliatory discharge. She alleged that during the court of her employment, she had three interactions with Norby over a five week period whereby he made derogatory and sexual comments to her.

In the first incident, Norby asked Moakler if she was married. When she replied, "No," he replied, "So you are the aging nun." Moakler testified that she felt degraded by the comment and reported the incident to her superior. A few days later, Moakler ran into Norby again at a victory party for a newly elected Supervisor. Moakler alleged that Norby pulled her up to him so that their bodies were touching and in a flirtatious manner asked if she "had come here to lobby him." Norby also made a comment about how she looked in her suit and her legs. Again Moakler reported the conduct. A month later, at Norby's office, Norby commented that Moakler looked nice and put his arm around her. He walked her over to a large map and asked her where she lived and demanded that she give him her address. Moakler alleges that during this encounter, Norby rubbed her breast with his arm. Later that afternoon, Moakler overheard Norby state to a male staffer, "Why the "fuck" do you have to do something special for the Mexicans." Moakler testified that this comment offended her.

Holding

Factors to consider in determining whether a work environment is hostile include the nature of the unwelcome acts, the frequency of the offensive encounters, the number of days the conduct occurred, and the context in which the conduct occurred. The acts of harassment cannot just be occasional, isolated, sporadic or trivial. The Court held that here, the alleged acts did not establish a "pattern of continuous, pervasive harassment." While Norby's action were rude, inappropriate and offensive, such harassment was not "sufficiently" pervasive so as to alter the conditions of employment and create a hostile and abusive working environment."

Allyson K. Thompson is an Associate with Kring & Chung, LLP's Irvine, CA office. She can be contacted at (949) 261-7700 or athompson@kringandchung.com.

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