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Court Revives Woman’s Discrimination Claim

(CN) - A female business owner can sue for discrimination after a customer allegedly stopped buying her tires when she spurned his sexual advances, the New Jersey Appellate Division ruled.

Eileen Totorello, owner of J.T.'s Tire Service, supplied United Rentals' Piscataway branch with tires since 1998. Branch manager Harold Hinkes allegedly began pressuring Totorello to have sex with him in 2005. When she refused, she said Hinkes withheld his business from her.

Totorello said she got the business back by having lunch with Hinkes. This pattern continued until late 2007, she said, when Hinkes kissed and groped her against her will. When she refused his advances, Hinkes said she was making "a poor business decision," according to Totorello.

Hinkes stopped doing business with J.T. one month later, costing Totorello's company $29,000 per month in sales, she claimed.

She sued for sex discrimination, and United argued that sexual harassment, while prohibited in employment, is not discriminatory conduct.

The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, citing Totorello's failure to state a claim for sex-based discrimination.

The New Jersey Appellate Division reversed and reinstated the claim.

"A complaint sufficiently pleads a cause of action where one is suggested by the facts. ... Where, as here, the harassment consists of sexual overtures and unwelcome touching or groping, it is presumed that the conduct was committed because of the victim's sex," Judge Susan Reisner wrote.

"The quid pro quo sexual harassment, if legally allowed, would stand as a barrier to women's ability to do business on an equal footing with men," the judge added.

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