Another side to harassment

A U.S. District Court recently heard a case that deals with allegations of same-sex sexual harassment, sexual orientation and the Civil Rights Act. The case involved Stephen Centola, a postal employee.

Centola was a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service for more than seven years. During this time, Centola's co-workers harassed him by making sexually derogatory comments and leaving signs and cartoons mocking him at his work space.

Although Centola is homosexual, he never disclosed his sexual orientation to any of his co-workers or managers. For years, Centola reported the incidents of harassment, but the harassment continued. On July 22, 1998, Centola was terminated. He filed an appeal to the appropriate Postal Service office, but he was not reinstated.

Centola then filed a discrimination suit with the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts on Dec. 30, 1999. The Postal Service argued that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination on the basis of a person's sex, not sexual orientation, and asked the court to dismiss the case.

However, the court said that harassment of a man by other men is actionable under Title VII, as long as there has been "discriminat[ion]...because of...sex in the terms or conditions of employment."

This was the nub of Centola's complaint: Co-workers and supervisors, he claimed, discriminated against him because he failed to meet their gender stereotypes of how a man should look and act. In doing so, they created an objectively hostile and abusive work environment in violation of Title VII. The court said that Centola did not need to allege that he suffered discrimination on the basis of his gender alone or that sexual orientation played no part in his treatment.

Centola also raised a retaliation claim under Title VII. The Postal Service argued that the Civil Rights Act prohibits retaliation for discrimination based on gender, not sexual orientation, but the court noted that Centola did not characterize the harassment when he reported it. He just asked for it to stop.

Because Centola never disclosed his sexual orientation to anyone at work, there was no evidence that he claimed that the discrimination was because of his sexual orientation. Centola therefore established a prima facie case of retaliation. Once a prima facie showing has been made, the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, nonretaliatory reason for its employment decision.

Although Centola's Title VII sexual harassment and retaliation claim survived requests for summary judgment, Centola still faces the difficult task of convincing a jury that his harassers' behavior was so offensive that it altered the conditions of his work environment and that when he complained about this to his supervisors, they retaliated against him.

The case is back at the Postal Service. Stay tuned.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at milt.zall@verizon.net.

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