Conn. SC: Employer liable for sexual harassment

By Jessica M. Karmasek | May 14, 2012


HARTFORD, Conn. (Legal Newsline) - The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled this week that an employer is liable for failing to take "reasonable steps" to prevent an employee from being subjected to hostile work environments based on his sexual orientation.

The Court, in its opinion, which will be officially released Tuesday, upheld a jury award of more than $90,000 in favor of a longtime Birken Manufacturing Company employee.

Birken, based in Bloomfield, Conn., is an an aerospace component manufacturer specializing in aircraft fuel control, vanes and struts, large housing machining, and sheet metal stamping and forming. Its customers include Volvo and Boeing.

The plaintiff, Luis Patino, sued Birken, claiming that the company engaged in a discriminatory employment practice when it allowed his coworkers to harass him about his sexual orientation for a period of at least 10 years.

Patino was employed by Birken as a machinist from 1977 until he was terminated in November 2004.

However, it wasn't until 1991 that he became the subject of constant name-calling on the shop floor. Coworkers, Patino alleged, would use derogatory slurs for homosexuals in Spanish, including "pato" and "maricon," and also in Italian and English, "pira," "faggot" and "homo."

Although the words were not spoken to his face, they were made in his presence -- directly behind him, when he was operating machinery, for example.

Patino testified that the name-calling got so bad and made him so upset that his body would shake, his work and product would suffer, and it became difficult for him to sleep.

Following a trial, a jury returned a verdict in his favor, awarding him $94,500 in noneconomic damages.

In response, Birken filed a motion to set aside the verdict and a motion for remittitur, both of which the trial court denied.

Instead, the court rendered judgment in accordance with the verdict, from which Birken appealed to the state's high court.

The company claims that state code does not provide for hostile work environment claims; that even if the Court were to assume that such claims can be brought, Patino presented insufficient evidence to support the jury's finding of a hostile work environment; and that the award of damages was unsupported by the evidence and "excessive."

The Court rejected each of Birken's claims, and affirmed the trial court's judgment.

"Nothing in the language of the relevant statutes suggests that the legislature intended less extensive protections for victims of sexual orientation discrimination than for victims of other forms of discrimination," Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers wrote for the Court.

The evidence speaks for itself, the Court said.

"The evidence of a hostile work environment in the present case is that derogatory comments were made multiple times per week, sometimes several times a day, over a prolonged period of time, despite the plaintiff's repeated complaints to his supervisors," Rogers wrote.

"The plaintiff testified that his coworkers constantly yelled slurs in his presence as he worked on the shop floor. The plaintiff meticulously recorded each incident in his diaries, which were admitted into evidence for the jury to consider in reaching its verdict."

And the fact that the derogatory comments complained of were not always made directly at Patino -- and appeared to be the product of what the Court called a "locker-room office culture -- doesn't shield Birken from liability, the Court said.

As for the $94,500 award, the Court also sided with Patino.

"Given the sustained nature of the discrimination described by the plaintiff, the severity of the hostility he experienced, and the continued failure of the defendant to remedy the situation, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it concluded that the award was not excessive or shocking when compared to verdicts awarded under similar circumstances," Rogers wrote.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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