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Supreme Court Rules Connecticut's Anti-Discrimination Law Creates Claim for Hostile Work Environment Based on Sexual Orientation

May 15, 2012

The Connecticut Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46a -81c does impose liability on employers for failing to take reasonable steps to prevent employees from being subject to hostile work environments based on their sexual orientation. The plaintiff, Mr. Patino, was employed by Birken Manufacturing Company as a machinist from 1977-2004. In 1991 he became the subject of constant name calling based on his perceived sexual orientation. The Court found that he was subject to abuse almost constantly, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day. The taunting became so severe that his body would shake, his work product would suffer, and he would have trouble sleeping. In the beginning, instead of reporting the abuse to his employer he recorded the incidents in a series of diaries. After 6 years of the name calling and taunting he reported the incidents to his supervisor.

The supervisor first told the employees that the “bad words” being said were “going to stop.” This order gave Mr. Patino a few weeks of relief, however the harassment soon resumed. After reporting the harassment to his supervisor a second time, an employee was transferred to another facility. This action did not help the situation but may have in fact inflamed the situation for Mr. Patino.

Mr. Patino hired an attorney who contacted Birken’s General Counsel about Mr. Patino’s working conditions. The General Counsel responded with a recommendation that Mr. Patino see a psychologist. No action was taken and the harassment continued. Plaintiff then filed numerous complaints with the commission on human rights and opportunities, the last of which became the subject of the forthcoming court action.

At trial, the jury found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded him $94,500 in noneconomic damages. The defendant challenged on three grounds. First, Birken claimed that no hostile environment claim is provided under Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46a-81c. Second, it claimed even if there was a claim provided, there was insufficient evidence of a hostile work environment produced by the plaintiff at trial. Lastly, Birken claimed the damages awarded by the jury were overly excessive.

The crux of the defendant’s first challenge was that there is no phrase such as “hostile workplace” or hostile environment” anywhere in the text of the statute. The text includes the phrase “terms conditions and privileges of employment.” Based on the Supreme Court of the United States’ interpretation and the Connecticut Supreme Court’s interpretation of other statutes using that phrase, the Court found that “terms, conditions and privileges of employment” to be a well settled term of art in anti-discrimination law. A claim of hostile work environment based on sexual orientation was found to fall within the purview of the statute.

The defendant next challenged the sufficiency of the evidence because the name calling was not said specifically to the plaintiff himself, the words were commonly made in languages not understood by the plaintiff who happened to be fluent in both Spanish and English, and he also worked voluntarily on paid vacation days. The Court disagreed with each of these arguments. The Court found that the words need not be directed at the plaintiff to create an abusive work environment. In determining whether an abusive work environment existed they looked to the frequency, severity, and whether or not it unreasonably interfered with the employee’s work performance. In this case there was sufficient evidence that the derogatory comments were made multiple times a week and sometimes several times a day. There was evidence that the taunts were severe enough to affect the employees sleeping and job performance. The Court found no merit to the argument that because an employee is not fluent in a particular language it would follow that the employee would not know what particular words meant. Lastly, the court would not consider the fact that the employee came to work on paid holidays evidence that the abuse did not create a hostile work environment.

Finally the court rejected the argument that the $94,500 awarded to the plaintiff was excessive. The jury reasonably could have credited the plaintiff’s testimony that the harassment he experienced over the period of more than two years at issue devastated and overwhelmed him, making him angry, sad, and humiliated. The Court found that serious discrimination cases may in fact award damages of $100,000 or more.

The full text of the case can be found by clicking here.

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