The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently found a sexual discrimination claim rooted in false sexual workplace rumors to be viable under Title VII. This case serves as an instructive case study in sexual discrimination and harassment issues and may inform Wisconsin employees in similar areas of workplace law and employee rights.

Sexual Workplace Rumors Led to Discrimination and Firing

A jealous co-worker circulated a false rumor to fellow employees that Evangeline Parker (Parker) had a sexual relationship with a higher-ranking manager in order to obtain a management position.  The fallout from the spread of the false information, and management retaliating against Parker, ultimately led to Parker filing a sex discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), and her termination. 

Parker worked for Reema Consulting Services, Inc. (RSCI) at its warehouse facility from December of 2014 until she was terminated in May of 2016.   Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., No. 18-1206 (4th Cir. 2019).  Larry Moppins (Moppins), the highest-ranking manager at the warehouse facility, continued spreading the false rumor, locked Parker out of an all-staff meeting at which the rumor was discussed and not debunked, and told Parker he would not support her for future promotions.  As the false rumor spread, Parker was treated with open resentment and disrespect by those she was responsible for supervising, making it impossible for her to function in a supervisory role.  After Parker filed a claim of a hostile work environment under Title VII against RCSI, RCSI fired her.

Court Finds Harassment Suffered by Parker was Based on Her Sex

RCSI contended that its actions toward Parker were based on her “conduct” rather than her sex.  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that defense, saying the false rumor was based on Parker using her “womanhood”, rather than merit, to obtain her last promotion.  The Fourth Circuit recognized the deeply-rooted, and still-persistent perception, that women, not men, use sex to achieve success in the workplace.  The Fourth Circuit cited the seminal U.S. Supreme Court Title VII decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, 250-251, 272-273 (1998), for the proposition that gender stereotypes can give rise to sex discrimination claims under Title VII.  The Fourth Circuit found that Parker suffered actionable harassment because she was a woman, noting that women still face negative stereotypes and unfounded links between their sexual behavior and workplace advancement, different from their male colleagues.

Court Finds Harassment Sufficiently “Severe or Pervasive” for Title VII Claim

In the approximately two-year period between her promotion and her termination, Parker was subjected to continuous harassment that preoccupied not only Parker, but the management and employees at the warehouse.  Male members of management contributed to the continuing circulation of the false rumor, and humiliated her in front of employees whom she supervised.  The Fourth Circuit found that Parker alleged a viable hostile work environment claim under Title VII for discrimination because of sex.

Federal Circuit Court Decisions From Outside the Seventh Circuit Can Influence Wisconsin Employment Cases

Wisconsin is within the jurisdiction of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.  Although the Seventh Circuit is not required to follow the Parker decision because the Fourth Circuit issued it, federal courts of appeals frequently look to one another for guidance and insight.  Since the Seventh Circuit led the way in 2017 as the first federal appellate court to find that sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination covered by Title VII, it may find the Fourth Circuit’s interpretation of Title VII instructive if faced with a similar case.

If you have questions about sexual harassment in the workplace, or discrimination in general in the workplace, please contact the author or one of the employment lawyers at Hawks Quindel in Milwaukee at (414) 271-8650, or in Madison at (608) 257-0040.

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