— Posts About Sexual Harassment

4th Circuit Reverses District Court’s Grant of Summary Judgement in Sexual Harassment Case

In Okoli v. City of Baltimore, John P. Stewart was the director of Baltimore’s Commission on Aging and Retirement (“CARE”) and served in the Mayor’s cabinet.  In June 2004, Stewart hired Katrina Okoli, an Africa-American woman, to serve as his executive assistant.  For the first few months, Stewart and Okoli worked well together.  Beginning in September 2004, things changed dramatically.  Stewart began propositioning Okoli to have sex with him in a Jacuzzi as part of one of his sexual fantasies.  Despite Okoli’s rejections, he continued to proposition her repeatedly about joining him in the Jacuzzi and made many other sexual comments to her.  He also touched her multiple times, and tried to kiss her on one occasion in January 2005 at which point she ran out went home for the day.

After this last incident, Stewart began criticizing Okoli’s work more harshly, placed added demands on her schedule, spread rumors about her, and reminded her that she was an “at-will” employee.  Okoli then began reaching out for help in various ways, emailing various officials about filing a “harassment” complaint.  None responded.  On April 1, 2005, Okoli sent a formal complaint to Mayor Martin O’Malley.  Later that afternoon, Stewart fired Okoli.  Subsequent complaints to the City HR office and Community Relations Center went nowhere, so Okoli filed suit with Title VII harassment and retaliation claims among others.  The district court granted summary judgment for the City on the grounds that Stewart’s conduct was not severe enough to constitute harassment and that the City had legitimate basis to fire Okoli.

The Fourth Circuit reversed on all theories.  The Court had no trouble concluding the Stewart’s fondling, kissing, propositioning, describing sexual activities, and asking intimate questions collectively constituted conduct severe enough to be harassment.  The Court also found credit in Okoli’s claim of quid pro quo harassment because Stewart arguably fired her for rejecting his advances and filing complaints.  It found the timing of the firing to be highly suspicious and the City’s purported reason – Okoli’s typos in memos and minor scheduling mistakes – to be dubious.  Okoli certainly had enough evidence of pretext to survive summary judgment.  Finally, the Court concluded that Okoli had a viable retaliation claim based on her complaint of “harassment” and her firing just hours afterward.  In sum, one has to wonder how the district court got this so wrong.

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Fourth Circuit Supports Sex Harassment and Retaliation Claims

The Fourth Circuit recently issued an excellent decision in Okoli v. City of Baltimore.  This case presents claims under Title VII action for sexual harassment and retaliation (termination) for reporting the harassment.  Amazingly, the trial court dismissed the case.  The Fourth Circuit reversed, concluding that the plaintiff’s allegations that her boss forcibly kissed her, fondled her leg, propositioned her, asked sexually explicit questions, described sexual activities he wished to perform, and then, after she spurned the advances and filed a harassment complaint, fired her are sufficient to support claims of hostile work environment, quid pro quo sex harassment, and retaliation.

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Patterson Harkavy Defeats Summary Jugment in Sexual Harassment Case

In the case of Pascoe v. Furniture Brands International, Judge Frank Whitney in the Western District of North Carolina denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s claims of sexual harassment today.  The case will now proceed to trial, which is scheduled for later this month.  Ann Groninger and Joshua Van Kampen represent the plaintiffs, Pam Pascoe and Margaret Tambling, against their former employers in this case.

Judge Whitney did not issue a written decision, but plaintiff’s memorandum in opposition to summary judgment well describes this case:

This case raises a very poignant and present question, which is the extent of an employer’s liability under state and federal law for the conduct of a seemingly mentally unstable supervisor who tormented his female employees with threats of violence, including gun violence, surveillance of their homes, and numerous bizarre sexual comments. Regrettably, the conduct at issue in this case is a cautionary tale of an employer that flubbed the handling of a potentially dangerous situation by initially ignoring glaring warning signs, subsequently severely under-reacting to them, and which ultimately chose to circle the wagons around the proverbial outlaw, rather than act as a responsible member of our corporate community. Thankfully, Spicer did not turn his guns on these women as he said he might, but plaintiffs feared that he was fully capable of physically harming them. They have carried emotional scars left by Mr. Spicer’s conduct; injuries made worse by their employer’s betrayal of them. Defendants may aim to use their summary judgment motions to establish a low water mark of the protections afforded women in the workplace in North Carolina; however, plaintiffs respectfully submit that they have marshaled sufficient facts to permit a jury to answer that question.

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Fourth Circuit Rules for Sexual Harassment Victim

The Fourth Circuit has issued another good decision in favor of employees who are sexually harassed in EEOC v. Fairbrook Medical Clinic. This case involves a family medicine practice in Hickory, North Carolina.  Here’s the summary: “The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought this suit on behalf of Dr. Deborah Waechter against her former employer, Fairbrook Medical Clinic. The agency alleges that Dr. John Kessel, the sole owner of the clinic, subjected Waechter to a hostile work environment because of her sex in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. The district court held that Kessel’s conduct was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to constitute a hostile work environment. What happened here, however, was not merely general crudity but a series of graphic remarks of a highly personal nature directed at a female employee by the sole owner of an establishment. After carefully considering these circumstances, we conclude that the EEOC has presented an issue of triable fact and accordingly reverse.” Here’s more from the opinion: Read more…

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Fourth Circuit Rules for Plaintiff in Sexual Harassment Case

In Whitten v. Fred’s, Inc., the Fourth Circuit issued an important ruling in a sexual harassment case.  The Court concluded that the company-defendant could held liable for sexual harassment by its manager, even if the manager did not have the authority to fire the harassed worker.   Although the Court was addressing state law claims, South Carolina anti-discrimination law mirrors federal law, and the Court based its decision on federal case law.  So, it seems that its decision would apply to federal Title VII claims as well.

The plaintiff Clara Whitten was an assistant manager at Fred’s, a department store.  Matt Green worked with Whitten as the store’s manager.  After being transferred to Green’s store, Whitten only worked two days at the store before she felt compelled to quit because of sexual harassment from Green.  Whitten alleged that Green rubbed his genitals against Whitten on two separate occasions, that Green punished her by changing her schedule and giving her undesirable tasks because Whitten did not want to spend any time alone with Green, and that Green was verbally abusive. Read more…

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Fourth Circuit Affirms Sexual Harassment Verdict

In King v. McMillan, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a jury verdict and the court’s rulings in a sexual harassment case.  The plaintiff, a former deputy in a sheriff’s office, had been sexually harassed by the sheriff over several years.   A jury awarded her compensatory and punitive damages on her claims of battery and sexual harassment under Title VII.  The Court upheld the awards, the substitution of the correct defendant, and the admission of testimony of other female employees who had been sexually harassed by the same sheriff.

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