Thursday, May 05, 2011

Court Dismisses Sexual Harassment, Retaliation Case Against Hofstra

Last month, a federal court in New York awarded summary judgment to Hofstra University, dismissing claims of sexual harassment and retaliation that had been filed by Lauren Summa, former student manager of the football team. Summa, you’ll recall from prior posts, alleged that she was sexually harassed by members of the football team on bus rides to away games and in other contexts. She also claimed that she was not rehired for the manager position or for a grad assistant position elsewhere in the university as retaliation for complaining about the incidents to the coach and others.

The court analyzed Summa’s sexual harassment claims under Title VII as well as Title IX, after concluding that as a student manager she was an employee within the meaning of the employment discrimination law. The court determined that several of the events Summa included in her description of a “hostile environment” consisted of “gender neutral” harassment -- that is, not motivated by her sex -- and thus did not qualify as sexual harassment. For instance, the court described an incident when football players holding shut the door while she was in the bus bathroom as “boorish” and “immature,” but not motivated by sex. Also, the screening of a movie with sexual themes on the team bus did not count as sexual harassment because there was no evidence that it was shown to target Summa. The fact that players responded to Summa’s complaint about the movie (which prompted the coach to turn it off) by shouting “we want boobies” and that one of them yelled at Summa to “sit down and shut … up,” while gender-motivated, did not “by itself” evidence of a severe and pervasive hostile environment.

As my employment discrimination students know well, there’s a lot of subjectivity in the “severe or pervasive” standard in sexual harassment law. Had I been the judge, I would have likely viewed Summa being physically entrapped in the bathroom of a bus full of hostile football players as not only severe, but also gender-related given that none of the men on the bus were apparently subjected to that kind of intimidation. Moreover, while the court concludes that Hofstra responded appropriately to the incidents of harassment that Summa reported (for example, the football player who yelled at Summa after the movie incident was suspended from the team by operation of the coach’s third strike policy) there is no indication that the coaching staff addressed the bus bathroom incident or the “we want boobies” chant which also would have rated with me as evidence of hostile, sexual harassment.

For a variety of reasons, the court also rejected Summa’s claims that she was retaliated against by the University for complaining about the harassment she experienced in her position as student manager. According to the court, Summa did not demonstrate that the person in charge of hiring student managers had knowledge of her complaints, a required element for any retaliation claim. The court also accepted Hofstra’s articulation of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision to deny her a graduate assistant position, one relating to certain misstatements on her resume, which Summa did not demonstrate to be pretext of a retaliatory motive.

Decision is: Summa v. Hofstra Univ., 2011 WL 1343058 (E.D.N.Y. Apr.7, 2011).