Sex Discrimination: Rumors in the Workplace
Recently, in Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., 915 F.3d 297, 299, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 3965, *1 (2019), the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that sex discrimination can include spreading false rumors in the workplace that a “woman slept her way to the top.”
Parker v. Reema Consulting Services: Facts of the CaseA male colleague employed at Reema Consulting Services Inc. started a rumor that the plaintiff, Evangeline Parker, received six promotions in a little over a year due to sleeping with her boss. The male colleague did not receive comparable promotions at Reema Consulting Services, Inc. The rumor was well-known throughout the Company and was even spread further by the highest-ranking manager at the warehouse who asked the man accused of sleeping with the plaintiff “hey, you sure your wife ain’t divorcing you because you are f--ing [Parker]?” Id. at 300. As the rumor spread, the plaintiff "was treated with open resentment and disrespect" from many coworkers, and her "work environment became increasingly hostile." Id. The plaintiff complained to the manager of the warehouse about his comments and the manager informed her that “he could no longer recommend her for promotions or higher-level tasks because of the rumor.” Id.
When the plaintiff filed a sexual harassment complaint with human resources at Reema Consulting Services, Inc., she was told to stay away from the employee who started the rumor against her. Eventually, the plaintiff was given two written warnings and was terminated from the Company. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a claim for sex discrimination.
Court HoldingWhile the District Court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim because it found that the allegation was based on alleged conduct, not the plaintiff’s sex, the Fourth Circuit of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision. The court stated that “the rumor was that Parker, a female subordinate, had sex with her male superior to obtain promotion, implying that Parker used her womanhood, rather than her merit, to obtain from a man, so seduced, a promotion. She plausibly invokes a deeply rooted perception — one that unfortunately still persists — that generally woman, not men, use sex to achieve success.” Id. at 303. Altogether, the court found that the plaintiff plausibly alleged that she suffered harassment because she was a woman.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals includes the federal courts in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. Based on this case, employers may be held liable for sex discrimination when management encourages the spread of rumors in the workplace and the rumors cause an adverse employment action to the employee. Employers should be vigilant in quashing rumors when they begin and appropriately responding to complaints of rumors and sex harassment. This case shows how Courts have increasingly been taking a broad view of sex discrimination and harassment in this #MeToo era.