Sexually Suggestive Comment Not Enough to Establish Sexual Harassment

As we wrote in a prior post about the case of Reeves v. C.H. Robinson on sexual harassment, an employee complaining about sexual harassment in the workplace must prove that harassment was severe and pervasive, and not merely sporadic or occasional. Unfortunately for the employee in a recent case, Webb-Edwards v. Orange County Sherriff’s Office, even though she experienced considerable harassment from her supervisor, it was not severe and pervasive enough to give rise to a valid claim of sexual harassment.

Elaine Webb-Edwards was a deputy sheriff in the Orange County, Florida Sheriff’s Office. Her supervisor made a number of sexually charged comments that offended her, such as, “you look hot,” and “you’d look better if you’d wear tighter clothes.” On one occasion, when the employee and her supervisor were riding alone in a squad car, and the employee was speaking to her husband on her cell phone about lunch plans, the supervisor grabbed the phone out of the employee’s hands and told her husband, “I don’t know what you’re saying, but I’m eating your wife.”

After the employee complained about these comments, the supervisor stopped making them, but he continued to look at her from time to time in a way that made her feel uncomfortable.

The employee eventually filed a sexual harassment suit in federal court. The County, however, moved for summary judgment, which the court granted, finding that the alleged sexual harassment was not sufficiently severe and pervasive to create an abusive and hostile work environment. On the employee’s appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the judgment. The court held that even though the comments were made on a regular basis, they made the employee feel uncomfortable, and they were “taunting and boorish,” because they were not physically threatening or humiliating, and the supervisor never actually touched Ms. Webb-Edwards, a reasonable person in her shoes would not have found the supervisor’s conduct sufficiently hostile or abusive to support her claim of sexual harassment. The court did take special pains to note that although it was particularly concerned about the “eating your wife” comment, it concluded that this comment was still not sufficiently abusive, even in conjunction with the other offensive conduct, to establish a sexual harassment claim.

To get a good overview of the current state of sexual harassment law as it applies in the State of Georgia, take a look at the Webb-Edwards case as well as the Reeves case.