The Fourth Circuit recently overturned a decision dismissing the sexual harassment claim of a former Baltimore City employee, Katrina Okoli. Contrary to the trial court, the Court of Appeals first decided that the behavior of the supervisor created a hostile work environment. The behavior ranged from touching, sharing his fantasies of sex in a Jacuzzi, to yelling.The Court also determined that Ms. Okoli showed that her rejection of the boss’s advances led directly to her firing. It deemed “deeply suspicious” the fact that the plaintiff’s boss fired her “only hours after she culminated her rejection of him by complaining to the Mayor.” It also permits the retaliation case to go to trial.
The entire panel agreed that the unwelcome overtures and outright requests for sexual conduct amounted to sexual harassment. The concurring opinion discussed the ambiguity of the evidence that tied her job to her acceptance of the sexual advances. It also gave more credit to the City’s claim that the plaintiff was scheduled to be fired even before she complained to the Mayor. The important point, however, is that the jury should be able to decide whether the reasons for her termination were pretexts, given to cover up the discriminatory conduct.
It is still difficult for plaintiffs to get to trial in employment discrimination cases. But the Fourth Circuit has changed over the last few years, and this decision may be a harbinger of fewer cases decided without a trial.