(Whisper) Did You Hear The One About The Manager Who Spread a Sex Rumor and Ended Up in Court?

The promotion of a female employee sparked rumors about how she slept with her supervisor to get the job.  The manager’s decision to spread those rumors and then fire the employee for complaining about it sparked a lawsuit.

Today’s Gossip . . .

Evangeline Parker worked for Reema Consulting for about 18 months, receiving a number of promotions up to assistant operations manager at her location.  According to Parker’s lawsuit, this drew the ire of co-worker Donte Jennings who started at the same time as Parker but now found himself reporting to her.  He started spreading a rumor that Parker has slept with her supervisor in order to get her last promotion.  The facility’s senior manager, Larry Moppins, allegedly joined in the gossip and occasionally needling the supervisor that he was going to get divorced if his wife found out he had slept with Parker.

Parker claimed that her male co-workers, including some that she now supervised, began to treat her more disrespectfully.  She complained to Moppins, who allegedly responded by accusing her of “bringing the matter into the work place” and saying that he would no longer be able to recommend her for further promotion.  A few days later, when Parker sought to continue their conversation, Moppins supposedly lost his temper and angrily suggested he should have fired Parker when she started making a big deal about “this BS rumor.” At that point, Parker filed an internal complain of sexual harassment against Moppins and Jennings.

Parker alleged that she continued being subjected to harassment, including a retaliatory harassment claim filed by Jennings.  A few weeks later, she was called into a meeting wherein Moppins issued her two corrective actions – one for performance and the other for supposedly retaliating against Jennings.  Parker was then terminated.

. . . is Tomorrow’s Lawsuit

Parker sued in federal court for sexual harassment (among other claims), but the lower court judge dismissed the case on the grounds that the company’s actions were not based on sex.  The judge declared that while the rumors were offensive, they were not based on gender because rumors about having sex to get a promotion can involve anyone of the same or different genders.  As such, the rumors were based on conduct, not gender, and spreading them therefore could not have been a discriminatory act based on sex.

Parker appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals who reversed the lower court and revived her lawsuit.  The appeals court observed that Parker based her claim on “a deeply rooted perception — one that unfortunately still persists — that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success.”  Given that the US Supreme Court’s Price Waterhouse decision had already decided that claims based on gender stereotypes are viable under Title VII, the appeals court concluded that Parker had indeed stated a plausible claim of differential treatment based on sex.  They explained:

“[T]raditional 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…”

The Court concluded that distinguishing between harassment based on gender and harassment based on conduct is “not meaningful” when the conduct (spreading a rumor about a woman having sex to get a promotion) is actually related to gender.

Bottom Line

The Fourth Circuit’s opinion basically admonishes us to “get real” about the fact that while certain sorts of workplace behaviors conceivably could impact both men and women, it is women who often bear the brunt of those actions.  As such, those behaviors are gender-based and can be addressed in sex discrimination and sexual harassment claims.

It will be interesting to see if other federal courts pick up on this reasoning and whether they might also apply it to other sorts of discrimination claims where stereotypes play into workplace behavior.