Montana Court Sides with Bartender Told to Wear Elf Costume

June 14, 2006

A woman whose work schedule was changed after complaining about sexual harassment, including a requirement that she wear an elf costume, was unfairly subjected to an abusive working environment, the Montana Supreme Court said.

The case stems from a sexual harassment complaint filed by a Great Falls bartender against a man who owned the bar and casino with his wife.

Angela Stringer-Altmaier ultimately filed a sexual discrimination case with the Montana Human Rights Commission against Janet Haffner-Lynn and her husband Fred Haffner, who managed three of Haffner-Lynn’s restaurants or lounges.

Stringer-Altmaier said she complained to Janet about Fred’s conduct, and was switched from the night shifts to a day shift that didn’t work for her baby-sitting requirements. Haffner-Lynn allegedly told her she would have to quit if she couldn’t work the new schedule.
It was not the first time the Human Rights Commission had heard a sexual harassment complaint against Haffner.

The hearing examiner found that Haffner, who helped manage the R&R Lounge and Casino, Good Time Charlie’s Restaurant and Cody Bill’s Steakhouse, frequently made suggestive comments about clothes and displayed sexually suggestive objects.

Stringer-Altmaier said she was once forced to try on an elf costume for Haffner, the examiner said. She had to privately show the costume to Haffner, who touched her legs as he reviewed the fit of the costume.

The examiner awarded Stringer-Altmaier about $1,000 in lost wages and $7,000 in emotional distress after hearing the case in 2002.

But the Montana Human Rights Commission, on an appeal from the bar owners, reversed the decision. The District Court in Great Falls upheld that decision in 2004.

But the Montana Supreme Court said Stringer-Altmaier’s claim has merit and sent it back to District Court. The Supreme Court noted that Haffner-Lynn did nothing to correct her husband’s behavior as business manager.

“The fact is that Angela was subjected to a hostile work environment by virtue of her sex and Janet’s refusal to confront that problem along with her statement that Angela should put up with it, is sufficient to impose liability on Janet as the employer,” Justice James Nelson wrote in a 6-0 opinion. “To hold otherwise simply ignores the vicarious liability that Janet must suffer for failure to remedy the problem.”

The Supreme Court said the forced change in schedule was clearly an undesirable reassignment.

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