Most Hostile Work Environment: Semi-Finalist

A Ninth Circuit opinion (.pdf) issued today takes up the issue of sexually hostile working environments in a fairly extreme context: A prison full of really, really bad men.

Deanna Freitag was a guard at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. Her sexually hostile work environment was provided by inmates who took to masturbating in front of Freitag — in the showers or in the prison yard — for up to 30 minutes at a time.  And there were details involving a cafeteria tray that won’t be repeated here. 

Suffice to say, a damned hostile environment. Rather than busting the offending offenders over the head with a club (illegal but not entirely unforgivable, perhaps), Freitag filed the appropriate reports to trigger punishments for the deviant detainees. Her supervisors’ responses were underwhelming, to say the least. Reports were discarded or acted on too slowly to be implemented, and then a pattern of retaliation against Freitag was implemented. The pettiest of which: She was investigated for misusing prison resources — using the copier and phone to pursue her complaints against the prison.

A Ninth Circuit panel headed by Judge Stephen Reinhardt didn’t hesitate to find Freitag’s case a slam dunk, as had the lower courts. The panel did back the defendants (a motley crew of prison officials) on the issue of a jury instruction — deemed a harmless error — and some details of Freitag’s $600,000 damages award.

Apart from the lurid details, the opinion is interesting reading for some of the legal arguments used. The defendants argue that Freitag can’t allege a hostile work environment if she’s working in a state prison — a hostile environment full of sickos, deviants and scum, by definition.

This argument would’ve held more water if 1) the prison had fulfilled its duty to attempt to correct the problems, and 2) if Augustine Lopez, the site’s equal employment opportunity coordinator, hadn’t told investigators of the case that the female guard staff were “a bunch of lesbians.”

So the opinion is colorful reading for attorneys who handle employment issues, or any of us who think we’re having a crappy day at work.

 — Brian McDonough

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