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Unwelcome Hugging May Be Sex Harassment

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has just authorized a sexual harassment case built essentially on hugging.

Victoria Zetwick, a correctional officer in California, sued Sheriff Edward Prieto for creating a sexually offensive and hostile work environment. Beginning in 1999, when Mr. Prieto was elected sheriff, he hugged each female officer present when he was introduced. Thereafter, Ms. Zetwick claimed that he hugged her at least two dozen times over a three year period and then at least a hundred times for the next eight years. These hugs were “chest to breast.” Mr. Prieto also allegedly kissed Ms. Prieto at an awards ceremony. Ms. Zetwick expressed her shock at the kiss in front of co-workers and supervising lieutenants but no one acted upon it. Ms. Zetwick observed him hugging other female employees and even kissing a few of them, but did not see him hug any male employees.

The circuit court considered whether the acts alleged could be considered sufficiently “severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [Zetwick’s] employment and create an [objectively] abusive working environment.” The court concluded that jurors could decide that the differential hugging between men and women was not just “genuine but innocuous differences in the ways men and women routinely interact with members of the same sex and of the opposite sex.” Whether the hugging was “unwelcome and pervasive” would be pivotal in determining whether it qualified as sexual harassment. Ms. Zetwick had provided sufficient evidence to bring the matter to a jury.