Are Hugs a Hostile Act in the Workplace?

Are hugs a hostile act? What about in the work environment? In a recent decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals a sexual harassment lawsuit against Yolo County Sheriff Edward G. Prieto was revived. According to the lawsuit, Prieto allegedly hugged a female correctional officer more than 100 times over the course of 12 years.

In defense of the “hugging,” Prieto argued that he also hugged male employees in the workplace. His lawyers further argued that if he hugged the women in the workplace more, it was simply due to general differences in the way that men and women interact on a routine basis with members of the same and opposite sex. Yet according to the 9th Circuit, hugging can create an abusive work environment if the action is unwelcome and pervasive.

Plaintiff in the case, Victoria Zetwick, was a correctional officer. She also alleges in the suit that Prieto once kissed her when congratulating her on her wedding to another deputy. She claims she saw him hug dozens of other female employees throughout her 12 years on the job, but only give male employees handshakes. During the case, Yolo County defense did get Zetwick to admit that she had been known to hug male co-workers on occasion. The Yolo defense team also pointed out a statement in which Zetwick described Prieto’s hugs as “brief.” There were no sexual comments or other touching.

In 2014, a federal district judge dismissed Zetwick’s lawsuit, but in appeal the court found she had offered up enough evidence to possibly persuade a juror of reasonable mind that she had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace due to Prieto’s tendency to hug female workers in the department. They indicated that it would seem that Zetwick had offered evidence that there were both qualitative and quantitative differences in the conduct of Prieto toward the two genders. In the suit, Zetwick stated that the behavior made it difficult for her to concentrate, left her stressed and anxious and eventually made her resort to sleeping medication.

If you need information about hostile workplace environments or hostile actions in the workplace, please get in touch with one of the experienced southern California employment law attorneys at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.