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Sexual Harassment by Rumor
May 31, 2019
Parsons Behle & Latimer Legal Briefings


Employers must be proactive, sensitive and should take quick action to counter workplace rumors and gossip— particularly false rumors, to avoid liability under Title VII as demonstrated by the recent Fourth Circuit case, Parker v. Reema Consulting Servs., Inc., 915 F.3d 297, 302 (4th Cir. 2019).

Background

During December 2014, the employer in this case, Reema Consulting Services Inc., hired Plaintiff Evangeline Parker as a low-level clerk at its warehouse facility. Parker was promoted six times over the next year, ultimately becoming assistant operations manager of the facility in March 2016. Two weeks after her last promotion, Parker learned that male employees were spreading “an unfounded, sexually-explicit rumor that Parker was ”having a sexual relationship” with Mr. Pickett, a high-ranking manager, in order to obtain her latest promotion. The rumor was initiated by a jealous male co-worker who began working at the same time as Parker. Following her last promotion, Parker became a supervisor of the “rumor monger,” as he was referred to by the Fourth Circuit Court. Although started by a jealous co-worker, the rumor was perpetuated by many male employees, including the highest-ranking manager at the warehouse facility, Mr. Moppins. Moppins apparently held a group meeting where the rumor was discussed in detail and where he slammed a door in Parker’s face to prevent her from attending, even though the male participant of the rumored affair, Pickett, was permitted entry. In another meeting, Moppins allegedly blamed Parker for inciting gossip in the workplace. Approximately one month after Parker complained to human resources about the rumors and associated conduct, she was terminated.  Parker filed suit against Reema asserting sexual harassment and retaliation claims under Title VII.

The district court in Maryland granted Reema’s motion to dismiss and stated the harassing conduct was not a result of her gender but due to false allegations about her alleged conduct. The district court stated:

“The problem for Ms. Parker is that her complaint as to the establishment and circulation of this rumor is not based upon her gender, but rather based upon her alleged conduct, which was defamed by, you know, statements of this nature. Clearly, this woman is entitled to the dignity of her merit-based promotion and not to have it sullied by somebody suggesting that it was because she had sexual relations with a supervisor who promoted her. But that is not a harassment based upon gender. It’s based upon false allegations of conduct by her. And this same type of a rumor could be made in a variety of other context[s] involving people of the same gender or different genders alleged to have had some kind of sexual activity leading to a promotion. But the rumor and the spreading of that kind of a rumor is based upon conduct, not gender.”

Id. at 301–02.

The district court also concluded that the harassment was not sufficiently severe or pervasive as it was in circulation for a short period of time.

The Fourth Circuit’s Decision

The Fourth Circuit panel of three male judges disagreed with the district court and held that Parker sufficiently alleged a hostile work environment based on sex.

In reversing the district court’s order, the Court recited in detail Reema’s and its managers’ conduct in ignoring or perpetuating the false rumor. The Court stated:

“As alleged, 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. 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.”

The Court noted the rumor was started by a male coworker and those who allegedly spread the rumor were all male. The Court also noted Parker, and not the male supervisor who promoted her, was subject to adverse action because of the rumor.  

Lesson for Employers

This lawsuit offers a cautionary tale to employers and reminds them to ensure their managers and human resources staff are properly trained on appropriate steps to stop rumors of an affair when they occur, without infringing on NLRA rights. Employers should also review their internal policies for handling complaints of harassment or discrimination and how to avoid retaliatory conduct.

For advice about this topic as well as and other employment-related issues, contact Maria Hart at mhart@parsonsbehle.com or by calling (208) 562-4900.

 

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