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Hostile environment claim by gay employee upheld by court

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HARTFORD, Conn.—In its first ruling on the issue, the Connecticut Supreme Court has upheld a hostile work environment claim brought by a gay employee.

In a unanimous ruling earlier this month in Luis Patino vs. Birken Manufacturing Co., the court upheld a jury's award of $94,500 in punitive damages against the Bloomfield, Conn., firm.

Mr. Patino, who had worked at Birken as a machinist from 1977 until his November 2004 termination, said he was subjected to years of slurs for homosexuals in Spanish, Italian and English.

According to the ruling, the company's responses to Mr. Patino's complaints included a letter from Gary Greenberg—then the company's vp and general counsel and now its president—in which he recommended Mr. Patino be evaluated by a psychologist “because the plaintiff's job required him to work with precision instruments and he thus posed a safety risk to others when his mental facilities were compromised.”

The issues raised by the company in its appeal were that state law does not provide for hostile work environment claims; even if such claims could be brought under state law, the plaintiff presented insufficient evidence to support the jury's finding of a hostile work environment; and the award was unsupported by the evidence and was excessive.

In rejecting all of Birken's arguments, the court said that state law makes it illegal to discriminate against individuals “in terms, conditions or privileges of employment” because of the individual's sexual orientation.

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The legislature's use of that phrase “evidences its intent to permit hostile work environment claims where employees are subject to sexual orientation discrimination,” the court ruled.

Commenting on the ruling, Mr. Patino's attorney, Jon L. Schoenhorn, of Jon L. Schoenhorn & Associates L.L.C. in Hartford, Conn., said it “is a sweeping decision supporting workers” that “puts employers on notice—not just in sexual orientation cases, but in any case where there's a hostile work environment on any identifiable class.”

Mr. Schoenhorn said, “This is the first appellate-level case in the country that extends hostile work environment (claims) to the area of sexual orientation.”

Defense attorney Daniel L. Schwartz, a member of law firm Pullman & Comley L.L.C. who was not involved in the case, said he is not sure whether there have been any other state Supreme Court rulings on this issue, but it is “certainly one of the first of its kind in the nation.”

Mr. Schwartz said Connecticut “has had its anti-discrimination laws regarding sexual orientation on the books for some time, so it's sort of a natural evolution for these types of court decisions to see a court have to address that, given how developed the law is starting to become in that area.”

Mr. Schwartz said Patino “certainly broadens the state's sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws to include hostile work environment claims, and in essence” calls for them to “be treated as gender-hostile work environment claims as well.”

The ruling “gives some teeth to the advice that many employers are prone to follow anyway, which is barring harassment in the workplace isn't just about gender any more. It covers all types of discrimination,” including sexual orientation discrimination, he said.

Birken's president said the company is disappointed by the ruling.

“Birken Manufacturing Co. prides itself on its ethics, integrity and reputation,” according to a statement from Mr. Greenberg. “Our company's history and longevity in this community is a testament to our business practices and corporate record. We value our workforce and will continue to diligently work to protect our employees against discrimination.”