HR Management & Compliance

Office Romances: Fallout from Breakup Can Cause Headaches Down the Road

The federal district court of Minnesota recently heard a case regarding sexual harassment after the breakup of a consensual sexual relationship between an employee and her supervisor. The supervisor allegedly was displeased with the breakup and was unsuccessful in restarting the relationship, and a tense work environment ensued. The court ultimately held that the allegations presented a sufficient basis for the employee’s quid pro quo sexual harassment and retaliation claims to go to a jury.harassment

Background

“Tori,” an employee of Regus Management Group, LLC, began dating her direct supervisor, “Aaron,” in 2012. The relationship ended at Tori’s direction in 2014. Aaron did not handle the breakup well and continued to pursue Tori.

The two employees continued to work together. However, Tori reported that after the breakup, Aaron became controlling toward her, and he allegedly treated her worse than her coworkers. At one point, Aaron threatened to put Tori on a coaching plan, which she understood to be a step toward termination. Shortly thereafter, she reported her previous relationship with Aaron to an HR director and complained that Aaron was targeting her because she ended the relationship.

After conducting an investigation, the HR department determined that Aaron’s behavior did not create an appearance of improper conduct, but it warned him and changed Tori’s direct performance-related supervisor. Tori stated that after she complained, Aaron’s behavior toward her got even worse.

For example, she asked for a budget to throw a holiday party for clients. Aaron was responsible for budget decisions and limited Tori to $250, even though there was not a standard budget for such events and other parties had proceeded without a set budget. When Tori exceeded her budget, she was placed on a performance improvement plan. A few months later, she was terminated as part of a reduction in force.

Tori filed a lawsuit against Regus under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) and Title VII alleging (1) quid pro quo sexual harassment, (2) a hostile work environment, and (3) retaliation.

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

To establish a claim for quid pro quo sexual harassment, Tori had to demonstrate that (1) she was subjected to unwelcome sexual harassment in the form of sexual advances or requests for sexual favors and (2) her refusal to submit to the advances resulted in a tangible detriment to her job.

Regus and Aaron argued that Aaron did not threaten Tori’s position, seek sexual favors, or suggest that a failure to engage in a sexual relationship with him would result in an adverse employment action against her. Moreover, they contended that she was terminated based on objective standards that were established and implemented nationwide.

The court ruled otherwise. The court noted that Tori pointed to enough evidence to lead a reasonable juror to think that (1) her refusal to continue her sexual relationship with Aaron or her complaint to HR (or both) factored into his treatment of her and (2) his role in informing her about the holiday party budget could have factored into her termination.

Hostile Work Environment

A hostile work environment requires sexual conduct that had the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with the employee’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. The sexual conduct must be “unwelcome,” meaning that Tori did not solicit or invite it and regarded it as undesirable or offensive.

The court found in Regus’ favor, ruling that a reasonable juror could not find that Tori’s and Aaron’s work interactions after their relationship ended consisted of the type of sustained, severe harassment necessary to constitute a hostile work environment. Their relationship was consensual, Aaron did not make physical contact with Tori after they broke up, and he did not use inappropriate language or make sexual or intimidating comments to her. Thus, the court dismissed Tori’s hostile work environment claim.

Retaliation

To succeed on her retaliation claim, Tori had to demonstrate that she was terminated because of her opposition to unlawful conduct—namely, purported sexual harassment by Aaron. Similar to the quid pro quo sexual harassment claim, the court held that there were sufficient facts to lead a reasonable juror to believe that Tori was retaliated against for reporting Aaron’s conduct to HR.

The court indicated that there was enough evidence to demonstrate a causal connection between Tori’s complaint to HR and her termination. The court noted that a reasonable juror could find that Aaron’s actions in setting the holiday party budget played a role in or influenced Tori’s termination and that Aaron took those actions because of Tori’s complaint to HR. Accordingly, the court allowed Tori’s retaliation claim to proceed to a jury. Pung v. Regus Management Group, LLC, No. 16-6 (DWF/DTS), 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 210168 (D. Minn., Dec. 21, 2017).

Lessons

While a consensual sexual relationship between coworkers may not be a problem on its face, the fallout from a breakup may create legal issues down the road if one employee suffers an adverse employment action.

Although each situation is highly fact-dependent, the breakup of a consensual relationship between coworkers—especially a relationship between an employee and a supervisor—should be handled in a manner that avoids creating a hostile work environment and any semblance of sexual harassment or retaliation.

Lauren M. Krueger, an editor of Minnesota Employment Law Letter, can be reached at lkrueger@felhaber.com.