The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over South Carolina, handed down a ruling in February 2019 which may be a boon to women dealing with sexual harassment at work. The case, Parker v Reema Consulting Services (2019), reverses a lower court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s sex discrimination claim based on rumors being spread about her at work. This is a significant move toward a broader application of Title VII to combat gender discrimination, though it does leave some questions unanswered.
Title VII & Sex Discrimination Cases
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 explicitly prohibits discrimination in employment if done on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, and national origin. Historically, employers have tried to argue that conduct is only discriminatory if it is overt, and if it is malicious, rather than de jure. In other words, employers have argued that conduct is discriminatory only if the conduct or policy is designed to be discriminatory rather than simply being discriminatory in the way it is applied. However, the courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have generally replied that any discrimination constitutes unlawful employment practices, unless it can be shown that the discrimination furthers a legitimate business interest.
Sex discrimination cases fall under Title VII. While many involve alleged sexual harassment, not all of them do. A sex discrimination case is simply a complaint that states the plaintiff was harassed or mistreated due to their sex or gender. Anyone of any gender could in theory allege sex discrimination. The crux of the issue is whether the plaintiff is being discriminated against based on improper or outdated stereotypes or roles enforced on their gender.
For example, Hively v. Ivy Tech (2017) was a decision in which the plaintiff filed a sex discrimination suit against her employer. The suit was filed because they did not promote her due to her sexual orientation, which the plaintiff successfully held was a form of sex discrimination (a woman not conforming to stereotypes ‘expected’ of women by Ivy Tech; namely, being heterosexual).
Parker & Sex Stereotypes
In Parker, the plaintiff enjoyed a rapid promotion trajectory, with six promotions in just over two years. But after the last promotion, rumors about the plaintiff’s alleged promiscuity (“sleeping with the boss”) were started by a male colleague who had been with Reema Consulting for roughly the same time, with not as much upward advancement.
While Title VII does not prohibit simple teasing or the occasional joke, the rumors became taunts and negative employment actions, ending in a hostile work environment and Parker’s firing. She sued, arguing that the rumors amounted to sex discrimination, because men who rise rapidly at work are not generally subjected to such slander, but women are. In other words, the rumors were discriminatory because when a man is promoted, it is attributed to his abilities, while a woman’s promotion is often attributed to her womanhood (i.e., her sexuality), or even to the idea that a woman cannot get promoted without using her sexuality.
The district court dismissed the suit, arguing that the plaintiff’s dismissal was not rooted in sex discrimination, but rather in simple inappropriate conduct. The 4th Circuit reversed, citing the fact that the male employees who started the rumors were not sanctioned or disciplined; nor was the male supervisor who slammed a door in the plaintiff’s face and screamed at her about how the hostile work environment was her fault. If the male employees involved had been sanctioned at all, Parker’s claim might have been undermined. But they were not, which gives the impression that Reema condoned the ostracizing and mistreatment of Parker, who had allegedly failed to conform to the ‘stereotypes’ expected of women—namely, to not seek advancement.
Contact An Employment Discrimination Attorney
As of this writing, Reema has not appealed, but it remains to be seen if that will happen. If you have been discriminated against on the basis of sex or gender, contacting an employment discrimination attorney can be helpful in determining how to react. Attorney A. Christopher Potts has been on the proverbial front lines in fighting against this type of treatment for his clients. The firm of Hitchcock & Potts will work just as hard for you. Contact our offices today to schedule an appointment.