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Ruling: Hugging can create hostile workplace

March 28, 2017

bullard-law2Bullard Law, Portland law firm

9th Circuit Says Hugging May Create Sexually Hostile Workplace

The Ninth Circuit held that hugging “can create a hostile or abusive workplace, when ‘[i]t is . . . unwelcome and pervasive.’”  Further, the appellate court held that the plaintiff, a county correctional officer, could proceed to trial on her claims that from 1999 to 2012 the sheriff “subjected her to numerous unwelcome hugs and at least one unwelcome kiss that, taken as a whole, created a sexually hostile work environment.”  She claimed there were more than 100 such incidents directed at her and that the sheriff also hugged other female employees.  The sheriff and the county employer denied these allegations of harassment.  They admitted to the sheriff hugging employees, but asserted that he “also hugged male employees on occasion” and that any differences between his hugging of male and female employees reflected “genuine but innocuous differences in the ways men and women routinely interact with members of the same sex and of the opposite sex.”  The case has been remanded for trial on plaintiff’s sex harassment claims based on Title VII and California law.

Case Name: Victoria Zetwick v. County of Yolo (February 23, 2017).

Quick Takeaway: Because hugging is a fairly common activity, the point at which it crosses the line from socially acceptable to harassment is difficult to pinpoint.  The Zetwick case highlights the importance of having a clearly stated anti-harassment policy that includes an easy to follow process for raising complaints.  It also highlights the value of training for all employees regarding that policy.  (We note that the employer in this case may have had an excellent policy and may have a fantastic training program.  It has not been held liable; rather, the appellate court has said there is enough to require a trial.)

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