Court Rules in Favor of Corrections Employees on Sexual Harassment, Sex Discrimination, Retaliation, and Pregnancy Discrimination Claims

In Meadors v. Ulster County, the Northern District of New York held in favor of plaintiffs, county corrections officers, on various employment discrimination claims. Here we summarize the court’s holdings on plaintiffs’ sexual harassment, disparate treatment, retaliation, and pregnancy discrimination claims.

Hostile Work Environment

The court held that plaintiffs presented “barely” just enough evidence to survive summary judgment on the “severe or pervasive conduct” element of their hostile work environment claims:

[Plaintiffs alleged] that their co-workers and supervisors had possessed pornographic materials in workplace and often showed these materials to them and others, frequently made comments about female body parts and what they would like to do to them, made inappropriate sexual advances, displayed sexually offensive screen savers on their computers, talked about their most recent sexual activities in front of them, and played sexually offensive music. Viewing this evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, the Court finds that they have produced, albeit barely, sufficient facts to withstand summary judgment on the issue of whether their work environment was abusive. Although some of Plaintiffs’ allegations are not as specific as they might be, the Court cannot say that, as a matter of law, no reasonable jury could find that a hostile work environment existed.

The court next turned to whether there was a “basis for imputing liability to Defendant County for the objectionable conduct.” The Supreme Court recently held, in Vance v. Ball State Univ., 133 S.Ct. 2434 (2013), that:

[u]nder Title VII, an employer’s liability for [workplace] harassment may depend on the status of the harasser. If the harassing employee is the victim’s co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions. In cases in which the harasser is a “supervisor,” however, different rules apply. If the supervisor’s harassment culminates in a tangible employment action, the employer is strictly liable. But if no tangible employment action is taken, the employer may escape liability by establishing, as an affirmative defense, that (1) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior and (2) that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities that the employer provided …. Under this framework, therefore, it matters whether a harasser is a “supervisor” or simply a co-worker.

Under this standard, the court held that plaintiff failed to prove that the people who helped to create or maintain the hostile work environment were their “supervisors” under the Vance standard.  In particular, plaintiffs

fail to adduce record evidence that their superior officers and coworkers who participated in, witnessed, and/or had knowledge of the harassment had the authority to “hir[e], fir[e], … promote, reassign with significantly different responsibilities, or … caus[e] a significant change in [their] benefits.”

The court therefore analyzed plaintiffs’ hostile work environment cliams under the co-worker “negligence” standard:

[W]hen the harassment is attributable to a co-worker, rather than a supervisor, … the employer will be held liable only for its own negligence. A plaintiff, therefore, shoulders the burden to prove “that her employer ‘failed to provide a reasonable avenue for complaint’ or that ‘it knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known, about the harassment yet failed to take appropriate remedial action.’

Although the County had a formal, written sexual harassment workplace policy setting forth a complaint procedure to report harassment and conducts annual employee sexual harassment training that reviews that procedure, and that plaintiffs had a copy of the policy and attended the training, the court held that plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence that the County “lacks a good faith complaint procedure.”

The court cited evidence indicating the County’s “superficial stance against sexual harassment,” such as one plaintiff’s deposition testimony that (for example) “the actual procedure for complaining about harassment does not follow the policies that they were given,” and a defendant’s “callous and indifferent responses to deposition questions regarding the environment in his prison that could lead a fact finder to determine that Plaintiffs did not have a reasonable avenue of complaint.”

There was also evidence that defendants had knowledge of plaintiffs’ complaints:

[T]he EEOC issued probable cause findings as to Ms. Negron’s hostile work environment and sex discrimination claims; and, approximately eleven months later, the EEOC issued four probable cause findings as to Plaintiffs’ charges. The close temporal proximity between the EEOC’s probable cause findings for Ms. Negron and Plaintiffs’ near identical charges could lead a reasonable jury to determine that Defendant County knew of the hostile work environment yet failed to take appropriate remedial action.

Disparate Treatment

Applying the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, the court held that one plaintiff (Reyes) presented sufficient evidence of sex-based disparate treatment.

She argued that she was fired as a result of her arrest arising from a domestic dispute, whereas defendant “did not subject male officers, who were arrested for matters outside the workplace, to the same fate.”  For example, she argued that the defendant “merely accorded male officers a ‘slap on the wrist’ after they were criminally prosecuted for ‘bar room brawls’; whereas she was suspended and terminated for a domestic incident.”

The court agreed, finding that plaintiff “has come forward with sufficient facts to create an issue of fact as to whether Defendant County treated her differently than similarly-situated male officers with regard to discipline for matters that occurred outside the workplace.”

Retaliation

The court held that plaintiff Reyes raised a triable issue of fact as to her retaliation claim:

Plaintiff Reyes claims that Defendant Van Blarcum fired her on October 21, 2008, in retaliation for filing an EEOC charge on July 2, 2008. As previously discussed, Plaintiff Reyes’ termination resulted from a domestic dispute with her husband in November 2007, in which she was arrested and charged with criminal mischief. Plaintiff Reyes, however, ultimately received an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. Due to her arrest, Defendants temporarily suspended her in November 2007, only to suspend her indefinitely in March 2008. Her suspension led to an Article 75 proceeding in July 2008. Although the hearing officer recommended a sixty-day suspension and restoration of Plaintiff Reyes to her position with back pay, Defendant Van Blarcum fired her on the ground that she violated the Jail’s policy for conduct unbecoming an officer.

Based on these facts, the Court finds that Plaintiff Reyes has raised a triable issue of fact as to whether the filing of her EEOC charge was the “but for” cause of her termination. A reasonable jury could find that Defendant Van Blarcum’s decision to fire Plaintiff Reyes, a twenty-six year employee of Defendant County, rather than adopt the Article 75 hearing officer’s recommendation, was in retaliation for filing her EEOC charge. Furthermore, the fact that Defendant Van Blarcum fired Plaintiff Reyes roughly three months following her EEOC charge suggests, although it is not dispositve, that Defendant County unlawfully retaliated against her.

Pregnancy Discrimination

The court held that plaintiff Legg came forward with sufficient evidence of pregnancy discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.  Legg requested not to have direct inmate contact because of her pregnancy. Defendant denied plaintiff any light duty assignment, since ” such assignments were only awarded to employees injured on the job.”

Plaintiff, however, has presented “evidence that Defendants have historically awarded male officers light duty assignments for off-the-job injuries such as a toothache, kidney stones, obesity, and foot surgery.”

The court concluded:

Based on the evidence in the record and drawing all reasonable inferences in Plaintiff Legg’s favor, the Court finds that she has come forward with sufficient evidence to raise a material issue of fact as to whether Defendants treated her differently than male officers who were similar in their ability or inability to work when they denied her a light duty assignment during her pregnancy.

Share This:
(212) 227-2100