Virginia Business Law Update
Employee Allowed to go Forward with Sexual Harassment & Retaliation Claims
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals allowed a former city employee’s sexual harassment and retaliation claims to proceed to trial by reversing a lower court ruling which granted summary judgment in favor of the employer. Plaintiff Katrina Okoli, formerly an executive assistant for John P. Stewart, the director of Baltimore’s Commission on Aging and Retirement, filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment hostile work environment, quid pro quo sexual harassment, and retaliation. In the case of Okoli v. City of Baltimore, et al., Plaintiff Okoli alleged that over a four month span, Defendant Stewart repeatedly sexually propositioned her; told her of his alleged sexual exploits; asked her about her underwear; fondled her leg underneath a table on several occasions; and forcibly tried to kiss her when they were alone in a conference room. Okoli alleged that she rejected such advances by Stewart and also twice complained about the harassment to officials within the City government, as well as wrote a letter to Baltimore’s then-mayor Martin O’Malley concerning the harassment. Okoli was fired by Stewart just hours after her letter was received by the mayor’s office.
For its part, the City contended (and apparently the lower court agreed) that Stewart’s conduct was sporadic and infrequent and did not rise to the level of a hostile work environment. Further, the City argued that Okoli’s work had deficiencies, and that she was going to be fired even before she wrote the letter complaining of Stewart’s behavior. Additionally, the City argued, Okoli’s letter was non-specific and did not state that she was being “sexually” harassed by Stewart, only “harassed.” Therefore, they argued, Okoli did not engage in protected activity under Title VII to warrant a retaliation claim against the City.
The Appellate Court disagreed and held that the statements attributed to Stewart were both severe and pervasive. In addition, the Court held that a plaintiff need not mention the “magic words” of “sex” or “sexual” to effectively advance a sexual harassment complaint. Citing decisions from other circuit courts, the Court held that the complainant only need put the employer on notice that unlawful behavior is afoot. Okoli’s use of the words “unethical,” “degrading and dehumanizing” in her letter complaining about Stewart’s behavior were enough to raise a sexual harassment complaint. Finally, the Court determined that the district court erred in concluding that simply because Stewart had a document on his computer that pre-dated Okoli’s letter, such document was a termination letter. Stewart modified the computer document three times before delivering it to Okoli as a termination letter just hours after her sexual harassment complaint reached the mayor’s office. Under those facts, the Court concluded that there was sufficient evidence to infer that Stewart did not intend to fire Okoli prior to receiving word that she complained about his behavior to the mayor and his staff.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals hears appeals involving Virginia employment cases.
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