Request for Coffee Prompts Employee to Sue for Sexual Harassment

Christopher M. Olmsted
June 30, 2008 — 3,422 views  
Become a Bronze Member for monthly eNewsletter, articles, and white papers.

Tamara Klopfenstein was a part-time receptionist for National Sales & Supplies for six weeks. During her employment, two vice presidents regularly asked her to bring them coffee.

Her job description did not reference coffee service. However, she was told in her job interview that her supervisors did expect her at times to get them coffee. The individuals who held the position of receptionist before Ms. Klopfenstein were required to do so, and they performed the task without objection.

Ms. Klopfenstein, however, did object to serving coffee. Although she acquiesced once or twice by bringing coffee to the two vice presidents, she found these requests to be demeaning and embarrassing. Ms. Klopfenstein claimed that the requests to serve her employers not only “reinforced outdated gender stereotypes,” but bordered on harassment; she stated that, on three separate occasions, someone had entered a reminder in her electronic calendar that coffee was due at 3:00 p.m.

Within a few days, the controversy was really brewing. One day, the vice president again asked Ms. Klopfenstein to bring him coffee. She refused. He followed up with an email: “Tami, I want to be clear so there are no misunderstandings . . . of your many responsibilities as a receptionist / customer service rep is making and getting coffee
for Rich and I [sic]. This is not open for debate. Please don’t make an easy task a big deal.”

Ms. Klopfenstein responded by email, again refusing. She was immediately fired. Soon, she filed a lawsuit in a Pennsylvania federal court alleging sexual harassment based on a hostile work environment.

The trial court rejected her claim. The court acknowledged that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sexual harassment need not involve sexual conduct. It could involve hostile treatment of an employee because of gender. “Intimidation and hostility toward women, because they are women, can obviously result in conduct other than explicit sexual advances.”

However, in this case, there was no evidence that the vice presidents singled out Ms. Klopfenstein because she was a woman. Theoretically, singling out women to perform menial tasks could support a harassment case. “The Court recognizes that in the context of other indicators of sexism, getting coffee could evince a discriminatory intent.” But in this case, wrote the court, “there is no evidence of spoken or written statements, demeaning or otherwise, relating even tangentially to sex or gender. There is no evidence of physical gestures intended to intimidate Plaintiff as a woman or motivated by animus
toward woman.”  Other than asking to bring the vice presidents coffee, there is no indication that Ms. Klopfenstein was “asked to perform any acts that conform to traditional gender-specific stereotypes, either inside or outside of the workplace.”

On the other hand, the record does show that getting coffee for the vice presidents was one responsibility associated with Ms. Kleopfenstein’s position as receptionist. Receptionists before her were required to get coffee for the v.p.’s. Additionally, she was required to get coffee for office guests in addition to supervisors, although she did not find this requirement demeaning. Concluded the court: “There seems to be little in the record, other than Plaintiff’s own subjective speculation, to indicate that Plaintiff was treated differently “because of her sex. Accordingly, Plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim must fail.”

Christopher M. Olmsted