The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently published a decision, providing guidance to courts on when hugs and other forms of unwanted touching cross the line and become sexual harassment. Victoria Zetwick began working for Yolo County as a correctional officer in 1988. In 1999, Edward Prieto was elected as the county sheriff and became Ms. Zetwick’s supervisor. Ms. Zetwick alleged that between 1999 and 2002, Mr. Prieto subjected her to over a hundred unwelcome hugs. On one occasion, Ms. Zetwick says that Mr. Prieto, apparently in an effort to congratulate her on her recent marriage, kissed her partially on the lips. She complained about the incident but her supervisors did not forward her complaints for investigation. Ms. Zewick claimed that in 2010, she was working with another female employee and Mr. Prieto reached out to hug her. He then stopped himself and said that people had complained so he would not hug her. But then he proceeded to hug her and the other female officer anyway.
Ms. Zetwick claimed that Mr. Prieto didn’t reserve his hugs just for her. She claimed that over the years she saw Mr. Prieto hug and kiss dozens of female employees but never saw him hug male employees – instead, he would shake hands with male employees. On another occasion, Ms. Zetwick claimed that Mr. Prieto repeatedly asked another female employee how much she weighed until she answered and looked at the employee in a sexually suggestive manner. Mr. Prieto claimed that he did in fact hug male employees and that all of his hugs were just friendly hugs. The County also claimed that Ms. Zetwick hugged other male co-workers and joked about Mr. Prieto’s hugs.
Several courts have determined that hugs and kisses on the cheek do not always create a sexually hostile work environment. However, in determining whether such conduct does crease a hostile work environment courts must look at who engaged in the conduct, the conduct itself, the number of times the conduct occurs, and the period of time over which the conduct occurs. Importantly, the conduct must be severe or pervasive- it does not have to be both.