False Rumor That Worker Slept with Manager Leads to Harassment Claim

 

By Jeffrey Rhodes April 9, 2019
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​A lawsuit by a female assistant manager of a warehouse who was fired after complaining of a false rumor that she had a sexual relationship with a higher-ranking manager arguably established valid claims of sexual harassment and retaliation, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

The plaintiff worked for Reema Consulting Services Inc. (RCSI) at its warehouse facility in Sterling, Va. She began as a low-level clerk and was promoted six times until she became the assistant operations manager of the facility in March 2016.

According to the plaintiff, about two weeks after her last promotion, she learned that certain male employees at RCSI were circulating the false rumor that she secured her management position by having a sexual relationship with a higher-ranking manager. The rumor was started by a male RCSI employee who was hired as a clerk at the same time the plaintiff was, but he did not advance and became her subordinate.

The highest-ranking manager of the warehouse participated in spreading the rumor by asking the rumored paramour if the sexual relationship was the reason he was divorcing his wife. The plaintiff was treated with resentment and disrespect from many co-workers, including subordinates.

In late April 2016, the highest-ranking warehouse manager called a mandatory all-staff meeting. When the plaintiff and the subordinate who started the rumor both arrived a few minutes late, the manager let the subordinate enter the room but slammed the door in the plaintiff's face and locked her out, in front of her co-workers. The plaintiff learned the next day that the rumored affair was discussed at the meeting.

The plaintiff met with the highest-ranking warehouse manager, and he blamed her for bringing the situation to the workplace. He said he had "great things" planned for her but could no longer recommend her for promotions or higher-level tasks and would not allow her to advance because of the rumor. Several days later, the warehouse manager said he should have fired her when she began complaining about the "BS rumor." He lost his temper and began screaming at her. The plaintiff filed a sexual-harassment complaint against him and the male subject of the rumor.

Several weeks later, the male subject of the rumor submitted a complaint to human resources alleging that the plaintiff was creating a hostile work environment for him through inappropriate conduct. The plaintiff was instructed to have no contact with him. She followed the instruction but said he began to spend time in her work area. He talked to and distracted her subordinates and stared, smirked and laughed at her. The plaintiff raised this situation with her supervisor and the HR manager.

In May 2016, the plaintiff was called into a meeting with the highest-ranking warehouse manager, the HR manager, and RCSI's in-house counsel and was issued two written warnings and then fired. One warning was based on the complaint filed against her by the manager who was the other subject of the rumor, and the other warning asserted that the plaintiff had poor management ability and was insubordinate to the highest-ranking warehouse manager. The plaintiff claimed that RCSI disciplined her wrongly and more harshly than male employees were disciplined.

The plaintiff filed a federal lawsuit alleging a sexually hostile work environment, retaliatory termination and discriminatory discharge because she was fired more quickly than male employees. RCSI filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing that it did not state claims of sexual harassment and retaliation. The district court agreed and dismissed the lawsuit, agreeing with RCSI and opining that a false rumor of a sexual affair was not itself discrimination based on gender.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What are the different types of sexual harassment?]

The plaintiff appealed to the 4th Circuit, which overturned the district court's decision to dismiss the sexual-harassment and retaliation claims. The appeals court disagreed with the district court's opinion that a false rumor of a sexual affair involving a female employee was not necessarily based on gender, finding that it relied upon the demeaning cultural stereotype of a female employee who uses sex to obtain a promotion. The court further found that the lawsuit sufficiently alleged severe and pervasive conduct, and thus the retaliation claim could proceed.

Parker v. Reema Consulting Services Inc., 4th Cir., No. 18-1206 (Feb. 8, 2019).

Professional Pointer: A harassment claim need not expressly reference gender for the conduct at issue to constitute sexual harassment. Rather, the court can infer from cultural stereotypes how the conduct would affect the employee.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.

[Visit SHRM's resource page on workplace harassment.]

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