Staring Can Amount To Sexual Harassment

Nancy Billings began working as the secretary for the Grafton, Massachusetts Town Administrator, Russell Connor, in September 1999. A few months into the job, Billings began to notice that Connor was looking at her chest during their conversations. According to Billings, Connor would make eye contact, and then his eyes would shift down to her chest. Connor would stare for approximately five seconds or “what seemed like a long time” to Billings.

In response, Billings avoided being alone with Connor, and held a piece of paper in front of her chest while walking through the office. Connor once stared at Billings so many times in the first half hour of her workday that she went home to change out of the sweater she was wearing before returning.

Billings formally complained to the Town’s sexual harassment officer. Though the Town investigated the incident, and Connor’s staring was reduced for a time, Billings later reported that “the conduct has not stopped.” When the Town’s explanation that Connor simply had a difficult time making eye contact did not resonate with Billings, she brought a lawsuit against the Town. A trial court dismissed her sexual harassment claim on the grounds that “the alleged harassing conduct here is insufficient as a matter of law to create an objectively hostile work environment.” Billings challenged the dismissal in the federal First Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Court reversed the dismissal of Billings’ lawsuit. The Court began by stating the general standards for sexual harassment claims:

“A sexually objectionable environment must be both objectively and subjectively offensive, one that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive, and one that victim in fact did perceive to be so. The objective severity of harassment should be judged from the perspective of a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position considering all the circumstances. These circumstances may include the frequency of the discriminatory conduct, its severity, whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance, and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.”

The Court found that Connor’s staring could indeed amount to the creation of a hostile work environment. The Court held that “taken in the light most favorable to Billings, the evidence depicts a supervisor who regularly stared at her breasts for much of the two-and-a-half years they worked together. Thus, the alleged harassment did not consist merely of the sort of isolated incidents that ordinarily will not amount to discriminatory changes in the terms and conditions of employment. Other women who worked for the Town also said Connor had subjected them to similar behavior, which they, too, found objectionable. Furthermore, Billings did not stand silent in the face of her alleged treatment, but repeatedly complained. We believe that a reasonable jury could conclude that the staring unreasonably interfered with Billings’ work performance or altered the terms and conditions of her employment.”

Billings v. Town of Grafton, 2008 WL 324902 (1st Cir. 2008).

This article appears in the May 2008 issue