Magistrate Judge Who Views Porn in Chambers Now Under Ethics Review

Edgar M. Rivera

On July 5, 2017, Pennsylvania’s Judicial Conduct Board announced that Judge Michael R. Muth, a magisterial district judge for the East Stroudsburg Borough of Monroe County, Pennsylvania, is facing ethics charges after multiple court clerks complained about his viewing of pornography in his judicial chambers. Several court clerks claim that, while passing by Judge Muth’s desk over the last four years, they saw him watching videos and viewing pictures of women performing sexual acts on each other. Judge Muth’s computer was allegedly in plain view of the clerks passing by, and Judge Muth apparently made no attempts to hide what he was watching when a clerk entered his chambers.

Over half of working men, and one-third of working women, admit to watching porn on the job. Although no one has raised sexual harassment charges against Judge Muth, X-rated habits can lead to hostile work environment claims and sexual harassment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). In Patane v. Clark, the Second Circuit found that a plaintiff stated a hostile work environment claim where she observed her superior viewing pornography, handled pornography when opening her supervisor’s mail, and discovered that her supervisor had viewed “hard core” pornography on her own working computer. The presence of pornography in the workplace and plaintiff’s forced interaction with the pornography were enough for the Second Circuit to deem that the plaintiff adequately pled a hostile work environment claim based on sex.

Many courts have held that the mere presence of pornography at work does not create a hostile work environment claim under Title VII. In Yuknis v. First Student, Inc., the Seventh Circuit held that workplace behavior of a generalized sexually offensive nature did not amount to actionable sexual harassment where this conduct was not specifically directed at the plaintiff and where the plaintiff was not “within the target area of the offending conduct.” In Fonseca v. Secor Int’l, Inc., the Ninth Circuit held similarly, dismissing a hostile work environment claim where a plaintiff entered her supervisor’s office unannounced and repeatedly caught him looking at pornography on his computer screen, but admitted that her supervisor did not intend for her to see these images, that he attempted to hide these images from her when she appeared in his office, and that she was subjected to these images for no more than a few seconds at a time. Drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of Fonseca, the Ninth Circuit held that, although the supervisor’s conduct may have been frequent, a reasonable employee would not find his conduct to be “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of her employment and create an abusive working environment.” In O’Rourke v. City of Providence, the First Circuit landed somewhere in between, finding that a plaintiff frequently had “no way to avoid” the groups of men watching pornography in the cubicle adjacent to hers and that she felt “surrounded by” the pornography being viewed nearby.

The takeaway from these cases is that courts are more likely to find that pornography in a work environment is hostile where viewing the explicit material is unavoidable, where the viewers make no effort to shield the plaintiff from the material, and where the material is pervasive in the workplace.

If you believe that your employer has discriminated against you by displaying pornographic material in the workplace, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.