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It's Sexual, Not Personal
John Singleton was a maintenance mechanic for United States Gypsum Company (USG) in Torrance, California. In 2002, Singleton complained to his supervisors that he was being harassed by two co-workers, Kevin Ross and Lawrence Umi.

According to Singleton, the two repeatedly called him "Sing-a-ling." Singleton understood this to refer to a homosexual character played by actor Bernie Mac in the movie "Life."

Singleton also claimed that during every shift Ross would say things that "challenged me as a man.... He would say things like I got on tight jeans today ... every evening, every morning ... he would make gestures [and] comments [about] me performing oral sex on my supervisors, his screwing me..., me performing oral sex on himself, just one thing after another." Singleton also stated that Umi told him during every shift that "he would hold my hair and screw [me] from behind."

As a result of the taunting, Singleton says his work became a "living hell." Although he regularly complained to his supervisors, they did nothing to stop the misconduct. Ultimately, Singleton sued USG for sexual harassment.

Despite the vulgar workplace comments, the company didn't believe that Singleton had been sexually harassed. The company pointed out that Ross and Umi were neither expressing a sexual interest in Singleton nor were they hostile to men in the workplace. Thus, USG asked the Court to dismiss the case, since the misbehavior wasn't bad enough to create a hostile environment based on Singleton's gender.

The Court rejected USG's arguments and ruled that the company may be liable for a sexually hostile work environment. Even if Singleton was the only man singled out for abuse by Ross and Umi, the Court observed that he was treated differently because of his sex.

"It is the disparate treatment of an employee on the basis of sex – not the mere discussion of sex or use of vulgar language – that is the essence of a sexual harassment claim," the Court observed. Moreover, "there is evidence in this case that Singleton was 'disparately' treated because of his sex."

"Given that Ross and Umi were attacking Singleton's sexual identity, it stands to reason there is no evidence that Ross and Umi treated women the way they treated Singleton," the Court wrote. "Putting this point another way, given that Ross and Umi had targeted Singleton's identity as a heterosexual male, it is axiomatic that they would treat women 'differently,' i.e., not attack them for the same reason. It follows that the harassment was 'because of sex,'" the Court declared.

Accordingly, the Court ordered the case to proceed to trial so a jury may determine whether USG owes Singleton compensation for permitting a sexually hostile work environment. [Singleton v. US Gypsum Co. (CalApp 2006) no. B184623]

For information on this topic tailored to your company profile, request Memos:
5890 Workplace Harassment
5905 Sexual Harassment Based on Hostile Environment
5935 Employer's Response to Sexual Harassment Claims

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