Sexual harassment at the workplace in Pennsylvania takes many forms and in some circumstances the conduct at issue can be shocking. When an employee reports sexual harassment, the employer fails to take conduct a proper investigation and fails to take remedial action to stop egregious sexual harassment, employees may be able to recover substantial damages for emotional distress. In Vandergrift v. City of Philadelphia E. D. Pa. no. 16-cv-2999 (January 11, 2017), the employee, a female Philadelphia police detective, filed a lawsuit for gender discrimination, a sexually hostile work environment, and retaliation under Pennsylvania, federal and Philadelphia law.
To establish a sexually hostile work environment in Pennsylvania an employee must show: (1) she suffered intentional discrimination because of her sex; (2) the employee suffered severe or pervasive discrimination; (3) the discrimination detrimentally affected her; (4) the discrimination would detrimentally affect a reasonable employee in similar circumstances; and (5) the existence of respondent superior liability (employer liability). To determine whether an environment is severe or pervasive, courts consider the totality of the circumstances, including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance. Pervasive use of derogatory and insulting terms relating to women serve as evidence of a hostile environment. If supervisors create the hostile environment, an employer is strictly liable unless there is no tangible employment action taken against the employee and the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any sexually harassing behavior and the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities.
In Vandergrift, the court’s opinion outlines graphic sexual misconduct and harassment at the workplace. The employee, a career Philadelphia police officer, became a detective after 7 years of service. She worked in an environment allegedly riddled with sexual harassment that included not only sex-based comments but also alleged sexual assault by a Chief Inspector. After complaining about the harassment, she was transferred to another squad and thereafter she was charged with misconduct.
The female detective testified that in 2007, the Chief Inspector called her on the phone on at least three occasions and made sexual comments including he would love to bend her over and his most favorite part of a woman’s body and the part of the body which turned him on most was the part between her hips to her thighs. There was evidence of egregious physical misconduct as the Chief Inspector called the detective into his office and said, he wanted to know how wet she was, unzipped her pants, stuck his hand down her pants and underwear, and inserted his finger into her and then engaged in other remarks. Other evidence included the employee’s testimony that not a week went by without demeaning, inappropriate, barbaric sex-based comments and gawking stares on a constant basis. When the employee complained about how the stares made her uncomfortable, she was advised she should take the stares as a compliment. Rumors were also spread around the workplace that she engaged in sexual relationships with coworkers; she was subject to constant comments about how good she looked, and she was exposed to numerous comments about officers’ penises. In addition, a second female officer alleged that in one incident the same Chief Inspector started kissing her hard, touched her breasts, and put his hands on the outside of her pants toward her genitals and digitally penetrated her. An internal complaint was filed about that incident, the City impounded the Chief Inspector’s city-issued vehicle, conducted a forensic examination, and found seminal stains but the investigation resulted in a finding of “not sustained” and the Chief Inspector never received any discipline. After making a formal complaint the Plaintiff employee was charged with misconduct for sending a Facebook message to four male colleagues in her squad which included a picture of a baby whose facial expression reminded her of another Detective and included quotes with inappropriate language.
The Plaintiff offered expert testimony that the City’s sexual harassment complaint procedures and investigative practices failed to satisfy a number of workplace investigation standards by improperly applying a criminal law standard to some of the complaints; failing to investigate all the allegations and numerous other deficiencies.
In Vandergrift, the court addressed an issue that frequently arises in sexual harassment cases, the admissibility of incidents that go far back in time, given the time filing restrictions under applicable law (Pennsylvania law: employee must file a discrimination complaint within 180 days of the alleged act of discrimination; federal law: 300 days (EEOC Charge), two years (§1983 claim). In seeking to dismiss the employee’s claims, the City of Philadelphia argued that many of the facts forming the basis of the sexually hostile work environment claims occurred years prior to the charge and should be excluded because they were isolated or sporadic and not sufficiently linked to constitute one unlawful employment practice.
The continuing violations doctrine is an exception that extends the admissible incidents beyond the time filing requirements and provides that a sexually hostile work environment claim may be composed of a series of separate acts that collectively constitute one unlawful employment practice so long as (1) all acts which constitute the claim are part of the same unlawful employment practice; and (2) at least one act falls within the applicable limitations period. In Vandergrift, the Court concluded that the employee would be able to admit evidence that went back many years as there was sufficient evidence of a persistent, ongoing pattern of harassment which included the 2007 sexual assault and evidence that not a week went by without demeaning, inappropriate, barbaric sex-based comments, and gawking stares on a constant basis. The court also found a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the City properly responded to the harassment allegations and whether it exercised reasonable care to correct the alleged harassment.
Retaliation claims concern conduct to which an employee is subjected after reporting sexual harassment. To state a prima facie case of retaliation an employee must establish: (1) she engaged in protected activity; (2) the employer engaged in conduct constituting an adverse action either contemporaneous with or after the protected activity; and (3) a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action. Then the burden of production of evidence shifts to the employer to present a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for having taken the adverse action. Thereafter, the employee must prove that the employer’s proffered explanation was false, and that retaliation was the real reason for the adverse employment action.
In Vandergrift, the employee referenced four possible materially adverse actions: 1) supervisors labeled her as untrustworthy by telling her coworkers she filed an EEO complaint; 2) male colleagues spread rumors about her having a sexual relationship with a lieutenant; 3) the City reassigned her to another division where work is extremely hectic and busy; and 4) the City charged her with misconduct following the investigation. The court found that each of these could be adverse actions.
A third cause of action at issue in Vandergrift was a §1983 claim. A municipality is liable under §1983 when an alleged constitutional transgression implements or executes a policy, regulation, or decision officially adopted by the governing body or informally adopted by custom. The court found that the evidence established that there was sufficient evidence that the City of Philadelphia had a well-settled custom of sexual harassment within the Philadelphia Police Department as the employee’s coworkers and supervisors directed sex-based conduct toward her and other female employees throughout her employment and sexual allegations against high level managers were “swept under the rug” which equated to an unconstitutional custom of treating female employees in the Police Department less favorably than male employees. Thus, the court denied the Motion for Summary Judgment permitting all of the employee’s claims to proceed to a jury trial.
Andrew Abramson is an experienced Pennsylvania employment law attorney who represents employees who are the victims of sexual harassment and sexually hostile work environments in Philadelphia and all its surrounding suburbs. For more information on sexual harassment see http://www.job-discrimination.com/sexual-harassment