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Bias claims based on false rumors reinstated

Posted On: Feb. 11, 2019 2:22 PM CST


A federal appeals court has reinstated sex discrimination and retaliation claims filed by a woman who was allegedly fired as a result of a false rumor she had slept with her male boss.

Evangeline Parker began work at Reema Consulting Services Inc.’s warehouse facility in Sterling, Virginia, in December 2014 as a low-level clerk and was promoted six times, ultimately rising to the position of assistant operations manager in March 2016, according to Friday’s ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, in Evangeline J. Parker v. Reema Consulting Services Inc.

About two weeks after Ms. Parker assumed her new position, an apparently jealous fellow employee, who began working at Reema at the same time as Ms. Parker but soon became her underling, began circulating a false rumor that she had had a sexual relationship with a higher-ranking manager in order to obtain her management position.

The highest-ranking manager at the warehouse participated in spreading the rumor. In late April 2016, at a mandatory all-staff meeting, Ms. Parker arrived a few minutes late, and this manager “slammed the door in her face and locked her out,” which humiliated Ms. Parker in front of all her coworkers. She learned the next day the false rumor was discussed at the meeting.

In May 2016, Ms. Parker was called to a meeting where she was issued two written warnings and fired.  She filed suit against the company on charges including a hostile work environment and retaliatory termination under Title VII of the Civil rights Act of 1964. 

The U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Maryland, dismissed the case on the basis the harassment was not based upon gender, but upon false allegations of her conduct. It also concluded the alleged harassment was not severe or pervasive.

These charges were unanimously reinstated by a three-judge appeals court panel. The company argues the rumor was not “gender specific” yet this “fails to take into account all of the allegations of the complaint, particularly those alleging the sex-based nature of the rumor and its effects,” said the ruling.

“In short, because traditional negative stereotypes regarding the relationship between the advancement of women in the work place and their sexual behavior stubbornly persist in our society’ and ‘these stereotypes may cause superiors and coworkers to treat women in the workplace differently from men,’ it is plausibly alleged that Parker suffered harassment because she was a woman,” said the ruling, in citing earlier cases.

“Thus, the dichotomy that (Reema), as well as the district court, purports to create between harassment ‘based on gender’ and harassment based on ‘conduct’ is not meaningful in this case because the conduct is also alleged to be gender-based,” said the ruling, in reinstating Ms. Parker’s hostile work environment claim.

The panel also held the harassment was severe or pervasive. The “rumor and its adverse effects harmed Parker,” said the ruling. “The frequency alleged in the complaint was greater than what the district court characterized as ‘a few slights.’ Indeed, the harassment was continuous, preoccupying not only Parker, but also management and the employees at the Sterling facility for the entire time of Parker’s employment after her final promotion,” said the ruling.

“In addition, the harassment related to the rumor was humiliating,” said the ruling, pointing to the incident where the door was slammed in her face.

“Finally, the harassment interfered with Parker’s work,” said the ruling, adding she was adversely affected in her ability to carry out management responsibility over her subordinates, and by being told she had no future at the company, in addition to other impacts, the ruling said.

The majority opinion court did agree with the lower court that she had failed to first exhaust her wrongful termination claim before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, with a dissenting opinion disagreeing on this sole issue.