On April 6, 2018, the Texas Supreme Court came down with an important decision on same-sex sexual harassment claims. The six-justice majority and two-justice dissent produced an opinion that was over 100 pages, in which they discussed what legal standard applies in a case where a middle-school teacher was made to endure “rude, crass, and hostile” behavior from a co-worker, which created a hostile work environment for her. The case is important because it establishes the legal standard under Texas law for same-sex sexual harassment claims. The court held that the claim could not continue because the plaintiff failed to prove that she had been subjected to this treatment “because of” her gender, which is the standard required by anti-discrimination laws.
The relevant standard is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which protects workers from discrimination based on qualities like race or sex. An employee has the right to not to be subject to harassment because of their sex under the law, which includes words or actions that have sexual content or connotations. In deciding the case, the majority said that the main analysis is in regard to the motivation of the words or actions, which is evaluated by looking at the context of the situation. The majority noted that this case was more complicated because it was between employees of the same sex, which means there could be different meanings in seemingly harassing behavior. The dissent, on the other hand, stated that it was not about “why” the defendant was harassing the plaintiff – as the majority stated – but instead “whether,” such that it does not require analyzing the context, just whether it happened.
The majority held, however, that the employee here failed to show that the actions were motivated by sexual desire, general hostility to women in the workplace, or disproportionately targeting the employee and other women. The court concentrated on “personal animus” as well as similar conduct toward both men and women in finding that the conduct was not based on gender, and therefore not actionable or remediable under Title VII. To the majority, one does not have the right to expect a workplace that is completely free of profanity or off-color jokes. Conversely, the dissent found that the harassment was because of sex, as the comments had to do with female anatomy (discussing her breasts and buttocks) and were directed at the plaintiff, as a woman. For more information, contact an attorney, like a harassment lawyer today.