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Ninth Circuit: Sheriff's Pervasive, Unwanted Hugs May Create Hostile Work Environment

by Mark Wilson

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the dismissal of a jail guard’s hostile work environment claim against a sheriff, holding that unwelcome and pervasive hugging can create a hostile or abusive work environment.

Victoria Zetwick began working as a California jail guard for the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department in 1988. She was promoted to sergeant in 2002.
Edward G. Prieto was elected as Yolo County Sheriff in 1999. After his election, Prieto hugged all the female guards when he introduced himself to the jail staff. He shook hands with the male guards. Between 1999 and 2012, Prieto subjected Zetwick to numerous unwelcome hugs. Zetwick claims that Prieto hugged her at least two dozen times between 1999 and 2002, and at least 100 times between 2003 and 2011.

In May 2003, Prieto kissed Zetwick on the lips, supposedly to congratulate her on her recent marriage to a sheriff’s deputy. She expressed shock to her husband, co-workers and supervising lieutenants, but not to Prieto. Her supervisors did not refer her complaints for investigation. Instead, Zetwick’s co-workers and supervising lieutenants teased her that Prieto was going to kiss her on the lips following the incident. Between 1999 and 2013, Prieto also hugged and kissed several dozen other female employees. Prieto claimed that his hugs were innocuous; the kind that one might give a relative or a friend.
On one occasion, while staring at a female guard’s body in a sexually suggestive manner, Prieto repeatedly asked her how much she weighed, until she finally answered.

Zetwick brought federal suit, alleging sexual harassment, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 USC § 2000e, et seq. and related state law violations. She claimed that her workplace changed as a result of Prieto’s conduct. She found it difficult to concentrate and she was constantly stressed and anxious about his touching, which she believed had sexual overtones. Zetwick also claimed that she sometimes cried in the locker room, lost sleep, and had to rely on sleep aids to overcome her anxiety due to Prieto’s stressful conduct. The district court granted Defendants summary judgment on Zetwick’s claims. 

The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that unwelcome and pervasive hugging can create a hostile or abusive workplace. Suggesting that the lower court may have applied an incorrect legal standard, the court concluded that summary judgment on a hostile work environment claim is inappropriate unless a defendant’s conduct was neither severe nor pervasive enough to alter the conditions of the Plaintiffs employment.

See: Zetwick v. County of Yolo, F3d (9th Cir. 2017).

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Related legal case

Zetwick v. County of Yolo