Gender stereotyping cuts both ways

The Second Circuit has reversed summary judgment in a reverse gender-discrimination case where the male plaintiff claims he was forced to resign because management applied an unfair stereotype in believing that he was guilty of sexual harassment.

The case is Sassaman v. Gamache, decided on May 22. The case is notable because it emphasizes that men accused of sexual harassment have rights also. So far as I can tell, this is an issue of first impression for the Second Circuit, and based on its failure to cite any cases from around the Circuits in support of its reasoning, this may be a case of first impression under Title VII.

Here's what happened: Sassaman worked for the Dutchess County Board of Elections and had a female supervisor, Brant. Sassaman and Brant got along, until Brant tried to initiate a one-time sexual encounter with Sassaman, who remembered the conversation differently, believing that Brant was trying to to seduce Brant. Things took a turn for the worse when Sassaman got into her email account when he suspected her of hacking into his email account. Then Brant complained that Sassaman was harassing and stalking her, and the sheriff's office investigated but found nothing. There was no internal investigation into the sexual harassment allegation at the Board of Elections, however. Sassaman then resigned after Gamache told him, "'I really don’t have any choice. Michelle [Brant] knows a lot of attorneys; I’m afraid she’ll sue me. And besides you probably did what she said you did because you’re male and nobody would believe you anyway.'”

Summary judgment is reversed. First, the Second Circuit (Cabranes, Hall and Feinberg) applies the age-old rule that gender stereotyping in the workplace violates Title VII. Sassaman has a prima facie case of discrimination because Gamache stereotyped him as a sexual harasser. Citing Back v. Hastings on Hudson School District, 365 F.3d 107 (2d Cir. 2004), the Court of Appeals reasons, "Gamache appears to have defended his decision to credit Brant's allegations of sexual harassment by pointing to the propensity of men, as a group, to sexually harassment. When employment decisions are based on invidious sex stereotypes, a reasonable jury could infer the existence of discriminatory intent."

The employer argued that Gamache did not break the law because it simply wanted to avoid a lawsuit by Brant. No dice, the Court of Appeals says. While employers who do not take sexual harassment claims seriously expose themselves to liability, that does not mean they can discriminate against the men accused of harassment. "In the course of investigating such claims, employers do not presume male employees to be 'guilty until proven innocent' based on invidious sex stereotypes."

Another reason the employer loses is that it did not investigate Brant's claims at all, instead taking her accusations at face value. While employers do have leeway in dealing with workplace problems, the Court of Appeals says, "Title VII suits often require a court or jury to consider whether a employer's response to an allegation of discrimination itself constitutes evidence of discrimination or liability for discrimination." Since management did not investigate Brant's claim and applied a stereotype in forcing Sassaman to resign, the jury can find in Sassaman's favor.

The Court emphasizes that management's failure to investigate a woman's sexual harassment claim is not enough by itself for the alleged harasser to sue under Title VII. "We hold only that where a plaintiff can point to evidence closely tied to an adverse employment action that could reasonably be interpreted as indicating that discrimination drove the decision, an arguably insufficient investigation may support an inference of discrimination."