Email to a friend

Founding Partner Mathew B. Tully answers whether being called “cutie” is grounds for a lawsuit with NOVA Legal Beat


NOVA Legal Beat: Is Being Called ‘Sexy’ Grounds for a Lawsuit?

NOVA Legal Beat logo

Q. I work for a real estate company and my boss keeps calling me “cutie” and “sexy,” though he has not made any sexual advances toward me. Is that enough to support a hostile work environment claim?

A. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating “against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Without question, a supervisor’s sexual harassment can negatively impact a subordinate’s conditions of employment. But a few tasteless comments made by a supervisor alone may not create a hostile work environment. It may be a different story if the comments are extremely disturbing, incessant and clearly unwelcome.

“Not all sexual harassment that is directed at an individual because of his or her sex is actionable. Title VII does not attempt to purge the workplace of vulgarity,” the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said in Hopkins v. Baltimore Gas & Electric Company. In this case, a male employee claimed his supervisor of the same gender harassed him and created a hostile work environment by making inappropriate comments such as, “You only do that so you can touch me” after they bumped into each other and “Ah, alone at last” when in the bathroom together. However, the 4th Circuit affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of the case. “A handful of comments spread over months is unlikely to have so great an emotional impact as a concentrated or incessant barrage,” the appellate court said.

Hostile work environments involve unwelcome, sex-based conduct that “was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of her employment and create an abusive work environment,” and it can be linked to the employer, the U.S. 4th Circuit noted in Colie et al. v. Carter Bank & Trust, Inc. (2010). Colie, for example, involved a female bank supervisor who repeatedly called female employees “baby” and told them, among other things, they looked “sexy,” had “sexy” legs and looked “sexy” with their hair down. And even though the employees complained to bank executives about this inappropriate, unwelcome conduct, it continued.

While the employer claimed the employees alleged “nothing more than the sporadic use of rude language and occasional teasing,” the court found this characterization to be “in sharp contrast to the factual allegations.” It noted, “When the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment, Title VII is violated.” Consequently, the court refused the employer’s request to dismiss the case.

Employees should not let employers get away with sexual harassment that changes the conditions of their employment. They should not tolerate a hostile work environment and should immediately contact an employment law attorney who can prepare for them a discrimination lawsuit.

Mathew B. Tully is the founding partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC. Located in Arlington, Va. and Washington, D.C., Tully Rinckey PLLC’s attorneys practice federal employment law, military law, and security clearance representation. To speak with an attorney, call 703-525-4700 or to learn more visit


Attorney Locator

Find an attorney near you.
Click below.

Contact Us

  • Tully Rinckey announces new hires and promotion

    Derrick T. Hogan was promoted to senior associate, overseeing the criminal defense practice in Albany. Hogan joined as a law clerk in 2009. Morgan Smith joined as recruitment manager. Smith has more than 14 years of staffing and recruitment experience and previously …

  • Albany Police Officer Arrested

    Officer Caught on Camera Slamming 15-Year old Girl Albany Police Chief Brendan Cox says on July 26th, Officer Ervis Miftari was called to St. Anne Institute, a rehabilitation center for troubled girls, to help with one of the residents, who …

Read All

  • Free Download: EEOC 2016 Update White Paper

    You Could Be Sharing Confidential Info and Not Even Know It Tully Rinckey’s white paper details the Equal Employment Opportunity’s (“EEOC”) nationwide change to procedure that has gone largely unnoticed. The new procedure applies to Charges filed on or after …

Read All

Read All

  • Tully Rinckey PLLC Binghamton Office Ribbon Cutting

    You’re Invited: Tully Rinckey PLLC Binghamton Office Ribbon Cutting Tully Rinckey PLLC, an upstate-wide coast-to-coast 70 attorney full-service law firm, is holding a ribbon cutting for its new office space at 4100 Vestal Road, Suite 104, Vestal, NY 13850 on …

Read All