• Connecticut Supreme Court Rules Employers Liable for Hostile Work Environment under Sexual Orientation Discrimination Law
  • May 17, 2012 | Author: Beverly W. Garofalo
  • Law Firm: Jackson Lewis LLP - Hartford Office
  • The Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that the Connecticut law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation allows plaintiffs to bring hostile work environment claims.  Patino v. Birken Mfg. Co., SC18441 (May 15, 2012).  The Court upheld a jury award of $94,500 in damages to the plaintiff.

    The case was brought by a former employee of a jet engine component maker.  Beginning in 1991 and for about 13 years thereafter, the plaintiff, Luis Patino, was subjected to name-calling on his employer’s industrial shop floor.  His co-workers used derogatory slurs for homosexuals in English, Spanish and Italian.  They did not always direct the slurs to Patino’s face, but often used them while standing directly behind his back.  Patino heard such slurs as often as two or three times a day.

    The plaintiff, initially seeking to avoid confrontation, began keeping a detailed diary of the comments.  He eventually complained to a supervisor, who called a meeting of the plaintiff, the employees engaging in the complained of behavior, and the company’s owner.  At the meeting, the owner told everyone that the “bad words” were “going to stop.”  The harassment ceased briefly before resuming.  Over the next nine years, Patino wrote letters to the company about the harassment and filed five separate complaints with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights.  The fifth of these complaints (the subject of the case before the Court) alleged that the employer discriminated against him in the “terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” by failing to take adequate steps to remedy harassment on the basis of sexual orientation in violation of Connecticut’s prohibition against discrimination based on sexual orientation under General Statutes Section 46a-81c (1).

    The jury found for the plaintiff and awarded him $94,500 in noneconomic damages.  The Connecticut Supreme Court then transferred the case to itself from the appellate court.

    The employer argued that Section 46a-81c (1) does not provide for hostile work environment claims because the statute does not contain the words “hostile workplace” or “hostile environment.”  The Court disagreed.

    The Court explained it previously had determined that “Connecticut antidiscrimination statutes should be interpreted in accordance with federal antidiscrimination laws.” Title VII of the Civil Rights Act uses the “terms and conditions” language, the Court observed, and allows hostile work environment claims.

    In addition, the Court pointed out, Connecticut’s broader anti-discrimination statute, Section 46a-60 (a) (1), also uses the same “terms, conditions or privileges of employment” phrase in Section 46a-81c (1). The Court  previously had concluded that the state legislature intended to create a cause of action for hostile work environment claims by prohibiting employers from discriminating “in terms, conditions or privileges of employment” under Section 46a-60 (a) (1).  Therefore, the Court concluded, the legislature showed the same intent in using the same phrase in Section 46a-81c (1) for sexual orientation discrimination.

    Concluding that this language had taken on a specialized meaning in the employment discrimination context, the Court said that because the language was “a well settled term of art in antidiscrimination law, hostile work environment claims fall within the purview of [Connecticut’s] § 46a-81c (1).”  Accordingly, the Court held that when the legislature borrowed this language from other statutes, it intended to create a cause of action for hostile work environment.