Connecticut Recognizes Sexual Orientation Hostile Environment Claims

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            The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act covers hostile environment claims based on sexual orientation. Patino v. Birken Manufacturing Co., SC 18441 (May 15, 2012). This is an important development for gay and lesbian employees, as federal law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

            In this case the plaintiff worked for defendant as a machinist for some 27 years. Over the course of his employment he was repeatedly subjected to slurs related to his sexual orientation. He complained on numerous occasions and filed multiple claims with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO). Even though the company took several steps, including transferring the offenders, the taunts continued.

            In interpreting the state statute the Court found that the language prohibiting discrimination in “terms and conditions” of employment based on sexual orientation was similar to that covering other protected classes, such as race or gender. The Court then applied well established principles of what constitutes hostile environment discrimination in those other areas, to sexual orientation.

            In doing so, the Court reiterated that hostile environment discrimination occurs where the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that are sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive work environment. It went on to explain that the environment must be both objectively and subjectively offense, and one that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive, and one that the victim in fact found to be hostile and abusive. Factors to be considered include the frequency and severity of the abuse, whether it involved physical threats and humiliation, and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance. In addition, the conduct need not be directed at a particular employee in order to support a claim, nor must the employee be present when the conduct occurs as long as the employee is aware the conduct took place.

            It is now clear that Connecticut prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in both disparate treatment and hostile environment contexts, and employers should review their polices and provide supervisory training to insure compliance with the law.

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