Can a false rumor that a female employee slept with her male boss to obtain a promotion ever give rise to her employer’s liability for sex discrimination?
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit answered this question in the affirmative. In Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., No. 18-1206 (4th Cir. Feb. 8, 2019), the Fourth Circuit held that employers may be liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”) for sex discrimination where the employer participated in the circulation of such a rumor and acted on it by disciplining the employee. The case has important implications for how employers investigate and respond to similar derogatory rumors, and what types of conduct may give rise to a “hostile environment” based on sex.
From December 2014 until May 2016, Evangeline Parker worked for Reema Consulting Services, Inc. (“RCSI”) at its warehouse facility in Sterling, Virginia. While she began as a low-level clerk, she was promoted six times, ultimately rising to Assistant Operations Manager of the facility in March 2016. Two weeks after her promotion, she learned that male employees were circulating a false rumor that she obtained her management position by having a sexual relationship with a higher-ranking manager. The rumor originated with another RCSI employee, Donte Jennings, who began working at RCSI at the same time as Parker and in the same position, but because of her promotions, Parker soon became his superior, which made him jealous and hostile to her achievement.
The highest ranking manager at the facility, Larry Moppins, also participated in spreading the rumor and even discussed it at a mandatory all-staff meeting, which Parker was not allowed to attend. In another meeting, Moppins allegedly blamed Parker for bringing the situation to the workplace and told her that he had great things planned for her at the company, but could no longer recommend her for promotions because of the rumor. A few days later, he again blamed Parker for the rumor and, according to the Complaint, said that he should have terminated her when she began “huffing and puffing about [the] BS rumor” and began screaming at her. As the rumor spread, Parker was treated with open resentment and disrespect from many coworkers, including employees she was responsible for supervising. Parker subsequently made a sexual harassment complaint to Human Resources.
Several weeks later, Jennings submitted a complaint to Human Resources that Parker was causing a hostile work environment through her inappropriate conduct, which she denied. Human Resources directed Parker to avoid Jennings, which she did, but placed no restrictions on him. Thereafter, Jennings was able to hang around Parker’s work area, distracting and talking to her direct reports. He also stared at Parker at length and smirked and laughed at her. Parker complained to her own manager and to Human Resources about his conduct, but nothing was done.
Approximately one month after Parker made her sexual harassment complaint to Human Resources, she was called into a meeting with Moppins, Human Resources and the company’s in-house lawyer. She was presented with two written warnings – one related to Jennings’ complaint and one for insubordination to Moppins and poor management ability. Her employment was terminated in that meeting.
Parker sued the company for sex discrimination and retaliation under Title VII. The district court granted the employer’s motion to dismiss, ruling the rumor was not gender-based harassment. The district court explained its reasoning, stating, “[t]he problem for Ms. Parker is that her complaint as to the establishment and circulation of this rumor is not based upon her gender, but rather based upon her alleged conduct, which was defamed by … statements of this nature. Clearly this woman is entitled to the dignity of her merit-based promotion and not to have it sullied by somebody suggesting that it was because she had sexual relations with a supervisor who promoted her. But that is not harassment based upon gender. It’s based upon false allegations of conduct by her.” The district court also concluded that the harassment was not sufficiently severe or pervasive as it was in circulation for a short period of time. Finally, the district court dismissed Parker’s retaliation claim, concluding that Parker did not have an objectively reasonable belief that the conduct about which she complained violated Title VII.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the dismissal finding that Parker sufficiently alleged a hostile work environment based on sex. Taking into account Parker’s allegations, including the sex-based nature of the rumor and its effects, the Fourth Circuit held that the rumor that Parker had sex with a male superior to obtain a promotion was gender-based in that it implied that “Parker used her womanhood, rather than her merit, to obtain from a man, so seduced, a promotion.” The court further stated that Parker’s Complaint “plausibly invokes a deeply rooted perception – one that unfortunately still persists – that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success.” The court stressed that the rumor about Parker was started by a man and spread by men, and it focused on the woman and not the man in the alleged affair. The court also noted that Jennings was permitted to disrupt Parker’s work area, and that while Parker was sanctioned, neither the high-ranking manager who was the subject of the rumor nor Jennings faced discipline. In addition, the Fourth Circuit found that Parker had sufficiently alleged severe or pervasive harassment based on her allegations that the conduct continued for about two months and preoccupied not only Parker, but also management and other employees at the facility. Therefore, the court remanded Parker’s hostile work environment and related retaliatory discharge claims.
As this case illustrates, Title VII prohibits employers from using negative gender-based stereotypes to harass employees. Note that although this case is not binding on Texas courts because it is out of the Fourth Circuit (which has jurisdiction over federal appeals arising from Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia), a court in the Fifth Circuit may find this to be persuasive authority.
To prevent a situation like the one in Parker, employers should train management and human resources employees on how to suppress workplace gossip and effectively manage these types of rumors. Management should be reminded to maintain confidentiality when dealing with these types of rumors and allegations, and also investigate and address issues as quickly as possible.