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Parker v. Reema Consulting Servs. - 915 F.3d 297 (4th Cir. 2019)

Rule:

Title VII provides that it is an unlawful employment practice to discharge or otherwise to discriminate against an employee with respect to conditions of employment, because of such individual's sex; or to limit, segregate, or classify such employee in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive the employee of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect the employee's status as an employee, because of such employee's sex. 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000e-2(a). An employee claiming a severe or pervasive hostile work environment because of her sex can obtain relief under Title VII. To state a claim under Title VII for a hostile work environment because of sex, the plaintiff must allege workplace harassment that (1) was unwelcome; (2) was based on the employee's sex; (3) was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive atmosphere; and (4) was, on some basis, imputable to the employer.

Facts:

From December 2014 until May 2016, plaintiff-appellant Evangeline Parker worked for defendant-appellee 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 Sterling facility in March 2016. About two weeks after Parker assumed that position, she learned that "certain male employees were circulating within RCSI" "an unfounded, sexually-explicit rumor about her" that "falsely and maliciously portrayed her as having [had] a sexual relationship" with a higher-ranking manager in order to obtain her management position. The rumor originated with Jennings, an employee who began working at RCSI at the same time as Parker and in the same position. 

On May 18, 2016, the human resources manager simultaneously issued Parker two written warnings and then fired her. One warning was based on Jennings' complaint against Parker, and the other asserted that Parker had poor management ability and was insubordinate to the HR manager. In her complaint, Parker alleges that both warnings were unfounded. She also alleges that RCSI failed to follow its "three strikes" rule under which employees are subject to termination only after receiving three written warnings. Having received no prior warnings, Parker further alleges that the rule was disparately enforced such that male employees were generally not fired even after three or more warnings, while some female employees were terminated without three warnings or with all three warnings being issued at once.

Parker alleges, in Count I (concerning the rumor), a hostile work environment claim for discrimination because of sex, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2; in Count II, a retaliatory termination claim under § 2000e-3; and in Count III, a discriminatory termination claim alleging that RCSI terminated her employment contrary to its three-warnings rule, in violation of § 2000e-2.  The district court granted RCSI's motion to dismiss Parker's complaint for failure to state a claim. Parker appealed.

Issue:

Can a false rumor that a female employee slept with her male boss to obtain promotion can ever give rise to her employer's liability under Title VII for discrimination "because of sex?"

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part. As for the Count I allegation of a hostile work environment claim for discrimination because of sex, RCSI agreed with the district court's conclusions that its actions toward Parker were taken not because she was a female but rather because of her rumored conduct in sleeping with her boss to obtain promotion. Disagreeing the Court reversed the dismissal of Count I because Parker's complaint plausibly alleges a hostile work environment claim under Title VII for discrimination because of sex. In holding that the harassment alleged was sufficiently severe or pervasive, the Court looked at all the circumstances: The employee adequately alleged the severe or pervasive element of illegal harassment where the harassment was continuous, preoccupying not only the employee, but also management and other employees for the entire time of the employee's employment after her final promotion and the harassment interfered with the employee's work as she was excluded from an all-staff meeting, was humiliated in front of coworkers, and was adversely affected in her ability to carry out management responsibility over her subordinates.

As for Parker's retaliatory termination claim alleged in Count II, the Court reversed the dismissal of that count because the complaint does indeed allege a plausible claim of a hostile work environment based on sex, in violation of Title VII. The Court affirmed the dismissal of the discriminatory termination claim in Count III. Parker must exhaust her claims with the EEOC by including them in charges filed with the agency.

 

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