Offensive Conduct by Retailer’s Repeat Customer May Support Claim for Sexual Harassment
Aretail customer’s offensive acts directed toward a number of female employees may support a claim of sexual harassment by the employees against the retailer, a federal court has ruled. EEOC v. Fred Meyer Stores, Inc., No. 3:11-cv-00832 (D. Or. June 17, 2013).
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleged that a Fred Meyer store located in Oak Grove, Oregon, allegedly tolerated offensive conduct by a repeat customer, thereby subject- ing female employees to a sexually hostile work environment because of their sex. The employees claimed they were sexually harassed by the cus- tomer on multiple occasions and the store failed to adequately address the problem, despite its knowledge of the alleged conduct. The employer moved for summary judgment, contending the alleged conduct was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to be actionable harassment. The court denied the motion.
The court held the alleged conduct was sufficient to support a finding of harassment for three rea- sons. First, it found that many of the employees complained to the store’s management about the alleged conduct, indicating they found the con- duct subjectively offensive. Second, much of the alleged conduct was very offensive, including alleged touching of employees’ breasts, the court said. Third, the employees testified they were aware of offensive conduct directed to each other, which, the court said, contributed to an atmosphere of fear.
The case highlights how important it is for managers and employers to take employee complaints regarding inappropriate customer behavior seriously, particularly where the customer’s problematic behavior constitutes a pattern of conduct. Companies must take action to protect employees from these customers, including taking steps such as banning the customer from the store. Without taking such decisive steps, inappropriate customer behavior may support a claim of sexual harassment by the employees against the retailer.