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Legislative Update - Hugging in the Workplace

    March 10, 2017

    Hugging can create a hostile work environment, according to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Zetwick v. County of Yolo, No. 14-17341 (9th Cir. Feb. 23, 2017).


    Victoria Zetwick, a county correctional officer, alleged that defendant Edward G. Prieto, the county sheriff, created a sexually hostile work environment by, among other things, greeting her with unwelcome hugs on more than one hundred occasions, and a kiss at least once, during a 12-year period.   Most of the incidents occurred at awards banquets, GED graduations for prisoners, and some training sessions or meetings, and no incidents occurred when Sheriff Prieto and Ms. Zetwick were alone.  The kiss occurred when Sheriff Prieto congratulated Ms. Zetwick on her marriage to one of Sheriff Prieto’s deputies.  But, after the kiss, other county employees teased Ms. Zetwick that Sheriff Prieto might kiss her again.  And, Ms. Zetwick testified that Sheriff Prieto hugged only female employees.

    Rejecting the County’s argument that the Sherriff’s hugs and kiss were innocuous, socially acceptable conduct inside the Sheriff’s office, and not severe or pervasive enough to establish a hostile work environment, the Ninth Circuit permitted the case to proceed to trial.  It stated that an employer is liable under Title VII for conduct giving rise to a hostile environment where the employee proves (1) that she was subjected to verbal or physical conduct of a harassing nature, (2) that this conduct was unwelcome, and (3) that the conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment.  The Court then held that, “a reasonable juror could conclude that the differences in hugging of men and women were not, as the defendants argue, just genuine but innocuous differences in the ways men and women routinely interact with members of the same sex and of the opposite sex. “

    The ruling in Zetwick v. County of Yolo is another example of how a court, apply legal standards, could permit a case to proceed to a jury trial, despite what could be construed as innocuous conduct.  In its ruling, the Ninth Circuit stated that while Prieto's hugs may have been common in the workplace and that some other cross-gender hugging may have occurred, neither of those things demonstrates beyond dispute that Prieto's hugging was within the scope of “ordinary workplace socializing.”  The Court stated that “a reasonable juror could find, for example, from the frequency of the hugs, that Prieto's conduct was out of proportion to ‘ordinary workplace socializing’ and had, instead, become abusive.”

    Employers and managers should take note of Zetwick v. County of Yolo and remain vigilant to office hugging and other workplace socializing that could be considered unwelcome by employees, especially when the conduct is repeated or becomes the topic of office humor or jokes.

    Brian A. Walker helps businesses and individuals in employment, business, and real estate related litigation and transactions from the Wenatchee office of Ogden Murphy Wallace PLLC. You can reach Brian at or at (509) 663-1954.