Fourth CIrcuit Emphasizes Necessity of Complaining about Sexual Harassment

Fourth CIrcuit Emphasizes Necessity of Complaining about Sexual Harassment

The Fourth CIrcuit yesterday reinstated an employee’s sexual harassment case after it had been dismissed by the trial court.  Carla Dulaney sued her former employer after her termination, complaining of sexual harassment.  Dulaney’s shift supervisor demanded sex from her.  From time to time, she did have sex with him in the workplace, though it could hardly be called consensual.  When she refused to accommodate the supervisor, he screamed at her, sent her home without pay, and eventually spread vicious rumors about her around the company.  Her complaints were laughed off.  When she escalated the complaints (after having been warned not to go over the senior supervisor’s head), she was offered a severance agreement complete with release of claims.

The District Court held that a letter from the company offering her job back meant that she was not fired for complaining or for refusing to sign the severance agreement.  The Fourth Circuit determined that there were numerous factual disputes about whether the employee had suffered a “tangible employment action,” which is necessary before a court can impose liability on an employer that denies knowing about the harassment.  It did not reach other issues, such as whether Carla Dulaney adequately complained, and whether the employer failed to take action on her complaints.

District Courts continue to weigh facts, often giving scant weight to the employee’s assertions, in order to award summary judgment to employers.  This case shows the importance of proof that an employee made complaints about sexual harassment, and that the complaints went unheeded.

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