By Kyla J. Miller and Erin Dougherty Foley
Seyfarth Synopsis: According to the 4th Circuit, a female employee who was subjected to false rumors that her promotion was a result of sleeping with the boss can levy her claim for sex-based discrimination against her employer. The Court held that the Company served as a catalyst for the gossip stemming from one jealous co-worker, and held that these types of rumors are inherently based on sex stereotypes regarding women’s advancement and role in the workplace.
A three judge panel for the 4th Circuit found that subjecting a female employee to false rumors that she had an affair with her boss to obtain a promotion could violate Title VII. Parker v. Reema Consulting, No 18-1206 (4th Cir. February 8, 2019). Plaintiff–a warehouse manager–was good at her job. So good, in fact, that she climbed her way to the top at an unmatched speed. Starting as an entry level clerk, over the course of two years she managed to receive six separate promotions that led her to a management role.
But as they say–success attracts envy. Two weeks after receiving her latest promotion, a male colleague, who had started at the same time as Plaintiff but had trailed behind her in his own advancement, started a rumor that Plaintiff was having an affair with the boss who promoted her. The rumor was not true, yet it spread like wildfire. Soon, the highest ranked manager at the company started engaging in the gossip. After the rumor spread, Plaintiff alleged that her male coworkers treated her with hostility and disrespect, and that the manager himself accused Plaintiff of “bringing the situation to the workplace” after she requested a meeting to discuss her concerns. The manager also stated he could not recommend her for promotion and that he should have fired her when she started “huffing and puffing about the BS rumor,” according to the Complaint.
Plaintiff brought a claim to Human Resources about the situation. According to the Company, they held a meeting with all management, including Plaintiff, to defuse the situation, then ordered all employees participate in sexual harassment training. Despite that, the manager later fired Plaintiff, stating she created a hostile work environment for the employee who started the rumor, and blaming her for insubordination.
Plaintiff sued the company for sex discrimination and retaliation under Title VII, including a claim for hostile work environment. The District Court tossed the hostile work environment claim–finding that mere bullying and harassment based on the false rumor was not based on her sex. In his opinion, the Judge stated, “the 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, you know, statements of this nature.” He went on to explain, “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 a harassment based upon gender. It is based upon false allegations of conduct by her.”
Plaintiff appealed–now grabbing the attention of the EEOC and 50 women’s and equal rights groups who filed amicus briefs on her behalf. On appeal, the crux of Plaintiff’s argument was that the rumors were grounded in traditional sex stereotypes regarding women’s advancement and role in the workplace. The rumor stemmed from a male subordinate who was jealous that Plaintiff was advancing quicker than her male counterparts–an idea that by its nature implicated sex. Further, Plaintiff argued that the reaction her superiors had to the rumors–especially the disparate treatment and hostility that resulted from it–further demonstrated how intertwined her gender was to the harassment.
The 4th Circuit agreed. Siding with Plaintiff, the Court found that the rumor implied that Plaintiff “used her womanhood, rather than her merit, to obtain from a man, so seduced, a promotion.” The 4th Circuit found it plausible that this rumor invoked a perception that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success. And it is this double standard that subject women, not men, to perceptions that they will sell their bodies to get ahead. The rumor’s sexual undertone was enough to find Plaintiff plausibly alleged she suffered harassment because she is a woman.
In the age of #MeToo, it is critical employers stay on top of rulings that implicate hostile work environment claims. As this case demonstrates, courts are increasingly leaning towards a finding that stereotypes that could be associated generally with one gender over the other are intertwined with “sex” for purposes of Title VII. Employers should be aware that rumors about women “sleeping their way to the top” may very well implicate sex stereotypes. Quashing these types of rumors and ensuring management handle the situation appropriately is critical to avoiding vulnerability to Title VII claims about workplace gossip.
For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team or the Labor & Employment Team.