In a decision that pushes the boundaries of past decisions defining hostile work environment sexual harassment, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., concluded that “a false rumor that a female employee slept with her male boss to obtain a promotion . . .” can give rise to employer liability under Title VII for discrimination ‘because of sex.’ When a supervisory employee perpetrates workplace innuendo of this kind, the court wrote, the employer has engaged in unlawful sex-based harassment because such rumors further a deeply rooted and offensive stereotype that “women, not men, use sex to achieve success.”
Who Started the Rumors?
Evangeline Parker (“Parker”) began work for Reema Consulting Services, Inc. (“Reema”) in December 2014 as a low-level warehouse clerk in Sterling, Virginia. She quickly earned six promotions, becoming assistant operations manager in March 2016. Two weeks later, Parker learned that Donte Jenkins, a male subordinate, had been spreading rumors in the warehouse that Parker had been promoted to manager because she had engaged in sexual relations with Demetrius Pickett, a higher ranking manager. Jenkins was motivated by jealousy and spite. Parker and Jenkins had begun their employment with Reema at the same time, in the same position. Through promotion, Parker had become Jenkins’ supervisor.
What Happened When Parker’s Supervisor Discovered the Rumors?
Larry Moppins was Reema’s top manager at the Sterling warehouse. Moppins became aware of the rumors spread by Jenkins and other male employees; he did not intervene to stop their behavior. Instead, he “participated in spreading the rumor[,]” and Parker’s work environment “became increasingly hostile. . . .” Parker experienced “open resentment and disrespect” by many of her coworkers, including those she supervised.
Parker’s work environment continued to deteriorate. Moppins “blamed Parker for “bringing the situation to the workplace; slammed the door in Parker’s face and locked her out[,]” when she arrived for a meeting a few minutes late, while allowing in a male employee who arrived at the same time; told her that she would not advance further within the company because of the rumors; lost his temper and began screaming at Parker during a one-on-one meeting in April; and directed Parker to stay away from Jenkins, but allowed Jenkins to spend time in Parker’s work area where he laughed and smirked at her.
Parker Complained to Reema’s HR Department
Immediately after the April one-on-one meeting with Moppins, Parker complained to Reema’s HR manager about Jenkins’ false rumors and Moppins’ hostility. Then Jenkins complained to HR that Parker “was creating a hostile work environment against him through inappropriate conduct[.]” Shortly after Jenkins’ complaint, Parker was called to a meeting with Moppins, Reema’s HR manager, and its in-house attorney. Parker was issued two written warnings – one based on Jenkins’ complaint and the other for insubordination toward Moppins – and was then fired.
Parker Sues Reema for Hostile Work Environment Based on Sex
Parker filed suit alleging that Reema had violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids an employer from subjecting an employee to a severe or pervasive hostile work environment because of sex. A claim of hostile work environment because of sex consists of work place harassment that was (1) unwelcome; (2) based on the employee’s sex; (3) sufficiently severe or pervasive to create an abusive atmosphere; and (4) based on conduct imputable to the employer.
Reema moved to dismiss Parker’s law suit and convinced the District Court that Parker had failed to state a claim for hostile work environment based on sex because: (1) the harassment Parker suffered was not “harassment based upon gender. . .” but rather was based upon “false allegations of [her] conduct ”; and (2) the harassment was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to have created an abusive work atmosphere.
Fourth Circuit Disagrees – Rumors against Parker Did Relate to Her Sex, not Her Conduct
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit rejected Reema’s centerpiece argument that the rumor was not about Parker’s sex because the rumor could just as readily have been made about similar conduct by a male employee. The Court dismissed the argument as too narrowly focused and disregarding of the sex-based nature of the rumor and its effects on Parker. Alluding to the Supreme Court’s plurality opinion in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, which equates sex stereotypes with sex discrimination, the Fourth Circuit opined that Parker had:
Invoke[d] 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 labeled as . . . prostitutes selling their bodies for gain. . . . In short, because traditional negative stereotypes regarding the relationship between the advancement of women in the workplace 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, [Parker plausibly alleges that she] suffered harassment because she was a woman.
Parker Experienced Hostility Sufficiently Severe or Pervasive to be Discriminatory
The Fourth Circuit also rejected the District Court’s conclusion that Reema’s alleged sexual harassment of Parker was not sufficiently severe or pervasive. Relying on the facts summarized above, the Court concluded that Parker had made a case that the Reema’s harassment had been frequent, maliciously designed, humiliating, had permeated the entire work place and caused her open scorn and disrespect, and was physically threatening and abusive. Of particular note to the Court was the fact that Reema’s top manager at the warehouse perpetuated and perhaps encouraged the workplace harassment by Parker’s coworkers and was directly responsible for some of the most egregious harassment she experienced.
With Parker, the Fourth Circuit squarely rejected the notion that Title VII’s prohibition on workplace harassment based on sex does not protect against the kinds of deeply-rooted, stereotypical, sex-based rumors experienced by Parker merely because those rumors could theoretically have been equally applicable to a male employee. Parker also highlights another reality for employers about workplace harassment based on sex: The Fourth Circuit will readily attribute to an employer, by implication, knowledge of its managers’ bad acts and assess responsibility to the employer for sex-based workplace harassment that goes unchecked.