False Rumors of an Affair May Constitute Sex Discrimination

A recent federal court decision in the 4th Circuit found that an employer may be liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act for failing to properly address and prevent false rumors of a sexual relationship between a female employee and a male supervisor. The decision in Parker v. Reema Consulting Servs.No. 18-1206 (4th Cir. Feb. 8, 2019)., upholds the plaintiff's sex discrimination claims.

According to the decision, Evangeline Parker was on a fast track of promotions at the company.  Two weeks after Parker’s last promotion, a male employee who had started at the company at the same time – but hadn’t matched her fast trajectory – started a rumor that she was having an affair with the boss who had promoted her. The rumor wasn’t true, but it swept through the warehouse where Parker worked. The highest-ranking manager at the warehouse helped spread the rumor, tried to prevent Parker from confronting the rumor, and subsequently blamed her for the turmoil in their office. He told her she’d never get another promotion from him and, later, that he should have fired her when she first started complaining.

Firing Leads to Lawsuit

Parker went to the company’s human resources department with sexual harassment claims against the man who started the false rumor and the boss who blamed her for it. The company claimed that it called a meeting of warehouse managers to defuse the conflict and had sexual harassment training for all employees.

However, the company subsequently fired Parker, claiming that she had created a hostile work environment for the employee who originated the false rumor about her and that she was insubordinate to her boss, the man who'd told her she should have been fired.

Parker filed a lawsuit, claiming sex discrimination and retaliation under Title VII. The lower court dismissed her case, finding that the bullying and harassment she experienced was not based on her sex.

Case Overturned on Appeal

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed the dismissal.  In finding that the conduct was based on Parker’s sex, the Court found that, “The rumor was that Parker, a female subordinate, had sex with her male superior to obtain promotion, implying that Parker used her womanhood, rather than her merit, to obtain from a man, so seduced, a promotion.”  The Court reasoned, “She plausibly invokes a deeply rooted perception — one that unfortunately still persists — that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success. And with this double standard, women, but not men, are susceptible to being labelled as ‘sluts’ or worse, prostitutes selling their bodies for gain.” Based on these stereotypes, the Court found that Parker had plausibly alleged that she had suffered harassment because she is a woman.

This decision demonstrates further support for women whose careers are damaged due to sex-based stereotypes and retaliation.  Coming during the #MeToo movement, it is another step forward in leveling the playing field for women at work.

It is important for New Hampshire employees to know that they have legal protection if they are suffering from sexual harassment, gender discrimination or retaliation.

Please contact Upton & Hatfield if you believe you are experiencing sexual harassment, gender discrimination or retaliation.

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