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  • Carole M. Bosch

Can "hugging" create a hostile work environment?

Plaintiff Victoria Zetwick worked as a correctional office for the County of Yolo. In a lawsuit against the County and Sheriff Edward Prieto, she alleged that Sheriff Prieto's repeated hugging on more than 100 occasions over a 12-year period of time and a kiss created a sexually hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). From 1999 to 2013, Victoria Zetwick also saw Sheriff Prieto hug and kiss several dozen other female employees, but did not see him hug male employees. Rather, he gave male employees handshakes.

The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of Sheriff Prieto and the County, who argued that Prieto's hugging of women but not men was just “genuine but innocuous differences in the ways men and women routinely interact with members of the same sex and the opposite sex.”

The appellate court disagreed. The court found that a reasonable jury could conclude that "hugs, in the kind, number, frequency, and persistence described by Zetwick" could create a hostile environment. The court recognized "the potentially greater impact of harassment from a supervisor and, indeed, the highest ranking officer in the department."

In addition, evidence that Sheriff Prieto hugged and kissed other women was "relevant and probative of [Sheriff Prieto's] general attitude of disrespect toward his female employees, and his sexual objectification of them.”

Zetwick v. County of Yolo, United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, February 23, 2017.

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