Sexual Harassment Complaint Dismissed; Court Cites “Two Years of Silence” Pre-Complaint

In Sears-Barnett v. Syracuse Community Health Center, Inc., 16-CV-426, 2021 WL 1202206 (N.D.N.Y. March 31 2021), the court, inter alia, dismissed plaintiff’s sexual harassment / hostile work environment claim.

This case is an example of the “Faragher Ellerth” affirmative defense in action, and generally illustrates the risk associated with failing to timely assert a harassment complaint.

From the decision:

Sears-Barnett alleges two years’ worth of sexual harassment. See Pl. Aff. ¶ 8 (plaintiff complaining that Shannon unbuttoned her blouse in front of her in 2012); Williams Aff. p. 40 (plaintiff complaining Shannon touched her on February 12, 2014 and claimed she was having trouble keeping her hands to herself).

That Sears-Barnett eventually complained of Shannon’s alleged sexual harassment only underscores the two years of silence that preceded that complaint. She knew the policy, claims that Shannon began harassing her in 2012, and still kept this alleged pattern of harassment to herself for almost two years. In the absence of any specific events with so much as a general timeframe attached to them between the summer of 2012 and February 5, 2014, the Court has no basis to consider the general pattern of misconduct plaintiff alleges between those two points.
SCHC has therefore sufficiently established the Faragher defense as to Sears-Barnett’s claims of sexual harassment predating February 5, 2014.

Stripping away Sears-Barnett’s earlier allegations of a pattern of harassment by Shannon, her hostile work environment claim fails as a matter of law.11 Under the most generous reading of the facts available to sustain plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim, the sum total of incidents plaintiff complains of amounts to: (1) three instances of sexual harassment across one week; (2) Shannon’s treating her as if she were “invisible” after receiving the final warning; (3) her unease at Shannon’s continued employment at SCHC; (4) Shannon’s not helping her log into her computer on August 18, 2014; (5) Shannon’s comment of “[o]h she’s here” on the same day; (6) Shannon’s retracting her scheduled leave on August 20, 2014; and (7) her termination.

[Citations omitted; formatting altered; cleaned up.]

The court proceeded to explain why this showing was not enough. For example, it noted that because of defendant’s disciplinary action toward the alleged sexual harasser there was no further sexual harassment after February 12, 2014, which

undermines Sears-Barnett’s ability to prove a hostile work environment in two meaningful ways. First, it presents a finite, isolated period of time in which plaintiff was subjected to an objectionable workplace. Second, a reasonable employee would hardly be able to find their workplace to be pervasively discriminatory if their employer actively took successful steps to protect them from abuse.

The court also noted, inter alia, that plaintiff’s discomfort at the alleged harasser remaining employed at defendant was insufficient to maintain her hostiel work environment claim. While plaintiff “remained disquieted by [the alleged harasser]’s presence,” according to the court, defendant “was not obligated to fire [the alleged harasser] for her misconduct.”

Share This: