A Massachusetts secretary to her town administrator
complained repeatedly that the administrator was always staring at her chest.
She took to holding pieces of paper in front of her when she left her desk.
And, she complained three times to town officials. Each time, a different
lawyer investigated her complaint, but all three essentially exonerated the
administrator. So she sued.
What happened. A woman began in September 1999 as secretary to Grafton's town administrator.
She and other clerical employees noted how often the administrator's eyes
drifted to their chests, which made them uncomfortable. On her first formal
complaint of sexual harassment in 2001, she was sent to the attorney who
represented the town. He made no decision, but only reported her complaint to
the Board of Selectmen. Her boss's staring was less frequent for a few weeks,
she said, but then resumed at its former level. On her next complaint, the
town's labor lawyer was assigned to investigate, but she didn't trust him.
Based only on an interview with the administrator, he reported her allegations
Her third complaint brought in an outside lawyer. She
interviewed the administrator and the secretary, asking her to imitate the
administrator's eye movements. Then she suggested there might be something
wrong with his eyes, leading him to involuntarily glance away from the face of
the person to whom he was talking. An ophthalmologist diagnosed the
administrator with "alternating intermittent exotropia," or wandering eyes. The
lawyer admitted that the administrator often glanced at women's chests but
termed it neither staring nor leering, as the secretary had charged. Then the
administrator had a heart attack and, on his return, submitted doctors' notes
that he was overstressed and couldn't work with the secretary any more.
The town transferred her to a less desirable job--one
that she'd earlier rejected--and she sued for harassment and
retaliation. A federal district judge dismissed her suit, and she appealed to
the 1st Circuit, which covers Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode
What the court said. Appellate
judges did not agree with the lower court. Being stared at could be harassment,
even without comments or touches, they said. And the town's reasons for
transferring the woman to an undesirable job might have been pretexts for
retaliation. So a jury will need to hear her case and decide. Billings v.
Town of Grafton et al., U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit,
No. 06-2145 (2/7/08).
Point to remember: Told of an inappropriate, sexually tinged "joke" the administrator made at one
point, judges perhaps suspected that many of his glances were intentional.