Appeals Court Throws Out Sex Harassment Verdict

October 23, 2002 ( - A federal appeals court has thrown out a $50,000 sexual harassment damage award after ruling that the plaintiff hadn't proven the explicit comments and explicit acts were directed at her.

The US 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Lisa Ocheltree hadn’t proven her work environment at a South Carolina sports mascot production company was a hostile one and that the acts she complained about were too far apart in time to count in a sexual harassment claim, the New York Law Journal reported.

Besides, wrote Appeals Judge Karen Williams, Ocheltree was in a group when she overheard some of the objectionable comments and couldn’t prove the comments and explicit acts were deliberately aimed at her because of her gender, the Law Journal story said.

Williams also noted that Ocheltree had, on occasion, participated in the office banter by making her own sexually explicit comments.

Ocheltree’s harassment lawsuit complained that a co-worker sang a crude song to her, a group of male colleagues showed her a photo of pierced male genitalia and asked for her reaction, and two other male co-workers performed simulated sex acts on a mannequin, according to the Law Journal

Generally, Ocheltree said, many of her male colleagues continually talked about sex, commented about others’ sexual habits, used foul and vulgar language and told sexually explicit jokes.

Disagreement Among Appeals Judges

The ruling also contained a pointed disagreement between Williams and Appeals Judge M. Blane Michael who dissented from the majority opinion, the Law Journal reported.

Williams used nearly half of her 23-page opinion to make an admittedly “extended response” to the dissent, chastising Michael’s opinion for its detailed account of the salacious conduct, calling it “shock value.”

Williams also wrote that Michael’s arguments were based on paternalistic and outdated stereotypes of contemporary women.

For his part, Michael admitted that not all of the words used around Ocheltree were demeaning to women, but contended that the remainder was potentially offensive — particularly the frequent stories about receiving oral sex.

“Comments like these portray women as sexually subordinate to men; indeed, it is not too strong to say that the overall tenor of the workplace banter conveyed the message that women exist primarily to gratify male desires for oral sex,” Michael wrote. “A reasonable woman would find this message offensive, to say the least.”

The case is Ocheltree v. Scollon Productions Inc . , No. 01-1648.