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District Court Holds That Plaintiff Failed to Prove She Experienced a Hostile Work Environment

In a recent Memorandum and Order issued by the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, the Court ruled on a summary judgment claim brought by the defendant in the case of Gunter v. Shapley & Stern, Inc. The defendant, a furniture and carpet selling company, hired the plaintiff to work remotely as an account manager in 2018. During Ms. Gunter’s first week of work, she attended a training where a male co-worker touched her leg inappropriately under the table several times. A few weeks later, following a virtual meeting, the same co-worker sent Ms. Gunter a personal email message that made her uncomfortable. Although Ms. Gunter did not file a formal complaint against her co-worker, she did report his behavior to the human resources department. Aside from their initial meeting, Ms. Gunter did not see her co-worker again in person due to her remote employment status, nor did she work with him on a regular basis. Approximately six months into her position, after receiving numerous written warnings about her job performance, Ms. Gunter was terminated by Shapley & Stern for poor sales performance.

Following her termination, Ms. Gunter filed a lawsuit alleging that her former co-worker had sexually harassed her and that she was terminated in retaliation after reporting his behavior. The District Court held that Ms. Gunter failed to demonstrate that she was sexually harassed; although the co-worker’s behavior was consistent with a hostile work environment claim, Ms. Gunter could not prove that his behavior materially altered the conditions of her employment because she could not demonstrate how the two interactions she had with her co-worker affected her job performance in any notable way. Similarly, the District Court found that Ms. Gunter had not made out a case for gender discrimination because she could not prove she had been treated differently than male employees and because her replacement was a woman. Finally, the District Court considered Ms. Gunter’s retaliation claim. She had argued that Shapley & Stern had “set her up to fail” in retaliation after she reported her co-worker’s inappropriate behavior, specifically by ignoring her questions, interacting with her less, and failing to assist her with technology issues that were causing an impact on her job performance. The District Court held that, although the evidence of retaliation by the defendant was slight, it was nonetheless sufficient to survive the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

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