Sexual Harassment Decision Against Town of Grafton Handed Down by First Circuit

It seems like common sense: a boss who incessantly stares at an employee’s chest to the point that she must hold objects in front of her to deter his wandering eyes constitutes sexual harassment. The First Circuit in Billings v. Town of Grafton et al. agreed, holding that a secretary who alleges that a supervisor repeatedly stared at her chest could sue her employer for sexual harassment.

Nancy M. Billings began working as a secretary for Grafton Town Administrator, Russell J. Connor, Jr. in 1999. A few months into the job, Billings noticed that Connor would repeatedly stare at her chest during their conversations. In one particular instance, Connor stared at Billings’ chest so many times in the first half-hour of her workday that she felt compelled to drive home and change her sweater.

Not surprisingly, other women who worked for the Town of Grafton also reported Connor’s wandering eyes and objectionable conduct. Billings filed numerous complaints about her boss’ misconduct to no avail. Rather than take remedial action against Billings’ boss, the Town placed the blame on Billings, and ultimately transferred her to a different department under less desirable working conditions. In attempting to defuse Connor’s actions, the Town of Grafton claimed that an ailment, called “alternating intermittent exotropia,” caused Connor to essentially stare at Billings’ chest.

Writing on behalf of the First Circuit, Judge Jeffrey R. Howard opined that Billings states a legal claim for sexual harassment:

We cannot reasonably accept, however, that a man’s repeated staring at a woman’s breasts is to be ordinarily understood as anything other than sexual. In arguing to the contrary in this case, the defendants rely on Connor’s eye condition, coupled with the fact that others who worked with him “did not sense any sexual intent underlying” his “failure to maintain eye contact.” While this might have some bearing on whether Connor’s staring created an objectively hostile work environment, it does not mean that the staring cannot support such a claim as a matter of law, because “harassing conduct need not be motivated by sexual desire to support an inference of discrimination on the basis of sex.”

This case will be closely monitored as it progresses to trial.