In today’s #MeToo age, it is hard not to know that sexual harassment is wrong and illegal. This recent case of unlawful sexual harassment comes with an admittedly unexpected lens. Rumors that a female employee is “sleeping her way to the top” is the latest version of prohibited sexual harassment in workplace. While endless movies, TV shows and real life certainly contain examples of others discussing by the proverbial water cooler how so-and-so is using her physical attributes to advance her career, many have likely not considered that the subject of the water cooler chatter is herself a victim of sex discrimination.
In Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., No. 18-1206 (4th Cir. Feb. 8, 2019), the Fourth Circuit explains very convincingly why a false rumor that a female employee slept with her male boss to obtain promotion can create Title VII liability for discrimination “because of sex.” From December 2014 through May 2016, Evangline Parker worked for Reema at its warehouse in Sterling, VA. She was promoted a total of six times, starting as a clerk and ultimately becoming Assistant Operations Manager of the Sterling facility in March 2016. Two weeks after her last promotion, Parker learned that male employees were spreading “an unfounded, sexually-explicit rumor about her” having a sexual relationship with a high ranking manager (Mr. Pickett) in order to obtain her latest promotion. The rumor was started by a jealous male co-worker who had starting work at Reema the same time as Parker, but whom Parker started supervising after the last promotion. The rumor was perpetuated by many, including the highest-ranking manager (Mr. Moppins) at the warehouse facility.
The rumors spread and resulted in Parker being treated with open resentment and hostility. Parker, for example, was excluded from an all staff meeting, even though Pickett was permitted to stay. Parker learned the rumor was discussed at this meeting. Parker then met with Moppins to discuss the rumor and at the meeting Moppins treated Parker harshly, including telling her the rumor was her fault, that he would no longer recommend her for promotions due to the rumor, and he would not allow her to advance further within the company. The Fourth Circuit’s decision contains a very thorough recount of the inappropriate conduct and ill-advised behavior that befell Parker. Suffice it say, Reema made mistake after mistake in its treatment of her, including its ultimate decision to terminate her premised upon two written warnings that were issued to her simultaneously and out of the blue.
Parker sued for a variety of Title VII claims, including sex discrimination. While being offended at the suggestion that Parker slept her way to the top, rather than earned her way with her merit, the trial court ultimately dismissed her claims, finding that her sexual harassment claim was not based upon her gender but rather was based upon false allegations of conduct by her. The trial court also felt that the rumor, ongoing for only a few weeks, was not severe and pervasive.
In reversing, the Fourth Circuit recognized that 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.” Of course, this kind of behavior about a women certainly reinforces the notion that females are rather unintelligent and could not, other than through sexual behavior, obtain any real success based on performance, merits, diligence, and hard work. The Fourth Circuit agreed that in this case, this behavior, coupled with the involvement of male management, and the consequences that befell Parker, resulted in her sexual harassment claim being appropriate to litigate.