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Circulating a “Promoted for Sex” Rumor is Sex Discrimination, Says the Fourth Circuit

Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On February 9, 2019, the Fourth Circuit in Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc. reversed the district court by holding that an employer may be liable under Title VII for sex-based discrimination by participating in the circulation, and acting on, a false rumor that a female employee slept with her male boss to obtain a promotion.

In December 2014, Reema Consulting Services, Inc., (“RCSI”) hired Evangeline Parker as a clerk at one of its warehouse facilities.  After several promotions, in March 2016, RCSI promoted her to Assistant Operations Manager.  About two weeks after that promotion, she learned that several male employees were circulating an unfounded, sexually-explicit rumor that falsely portrayed her as having had a sexual relationship with a higher-ranking manager, Demarcus Pickett, to obtain her promotion.  The rumor originated with another RCSI employee, Donte Jennings, and the highest-ranking manager at the warehouse facility, Larry Moppins, participated in spreading it.

As the rumor spread, Parker “was treated with open resentment and disrespect” from many coworkers, including employees she was responsible for supervising.  In late April 2016, Moppins called a mandatory all-staff meeting and Moppins “slammed the door in Ms. Parker’s face and locked her out.”  This humiliated Parker in front of all her coworkers.  Parker learned the next day that the false rumor was discussed at that meeting.  The following day, Moppins blamed Parker for “bringing the situation to the workplace.”  He stated that he had “great things” planned for Parker at RCSI but that “he could no longer recommend her for promotions or higher-level tasks because of the rumor.” He added that he “would not allow her to advance any further within the company.”

Several days later, Moppins again blamed Parker and said that he should have terminated her when she began “huffing and puffing about this BS rumor.”  During the meeting, Moppins “lost his temper and began screaming” at Parker.  That same day, Parker filed a sexual harassment complaint against Moppins and Jennings with RCSI’s Human Resources Manager.  A few weeks later, Jennings submitted a complaint to the Human Resources Manager, alleging that Parker “was creating a hostile work environment against him through inappropriate conduct.”  RCSI instructed Parker, based on Jennings’s complaint, to have no contact with Jennings.  Supervisors, however, permitted Jennings to spend time in Parker’s work area.  On these occasions, Jennings stared, smirked and laughed at Parker at length.  Parker raised this situation with her supervisor and the Human Resources Manager, but neither addressed it.

On May 18, 2016, Parker was called to a meeting with Moppins, the Human Resources Manager, and RCSI’s in-house counsel.  At that meeting, Moppins simultaneously issued Parker two written warnings and then fired her.  Parker alleges that both warnings were unfounded, and that RCSI failed to follow its “three strikes” rule.  Moreover, she alleged that RCSI disparately enforced the rule “such that male employees were generally not fired even after three or more warnings, while some female employees were terminated without three warnings or with all three warnings being issued at once.”  Parker brought suit against RCSI, alleging a hostile work environment claim based on sex, a retaliatory termination claim, and a discriminatory termination claim.

The district court dismissed all claims finding that the spreading and acting on the rumor was not discrimination based on sex, but rather, “based upon false allegations of conduct by her.”  The court reasoned:

As this same type of a rumor could be made in a variety of other contexts involving people of the same gender or different genders alleged to have had some kind of sexual activity leading to a promotion, the rumor and the spreading of that kind of a rumor is based upon conduct, not gender.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed.  As alleged, the rumor was that Parker, a female subordinate, had sex with her male superior to obtain a promotion, implying that Parker used her womanhood, rather than her merit, to obtain a promotion from a man. She invoked a deeply rooted perception that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success. And with this double standard, women, but not men, are “susceptible to being labeled as ‘sluts’ or worse, prostitutes selling their bodies for gain,” said the court.

The court also recognized that the complaint explicitly alleged sex-based discrimination.  The males in the RCSI workplace started and circulated the false rumor about Parker.  Parker as a female, not Pickett as a male, was excluded from the all-staff meeting discussing the rumor.  Parker was instructed to have no contact with Jennings, her male antagonist, while Jennings was not removed from Parker’s workplace.  Parker, who complained about the rumor, but not Jennings, who also complained of harassment, was sanctioned.  And Parker, as the female member of the rumored sexual relationship, was sanctioned, but Pickett, as the male member, was not.  In short, because “‘traditional negative stereotypes regarding the relationship between the advancement of women in the workplace and their sexual behavior stubbornly persist in our society,’ and ‘these stereotypes may cause superiors and coworkers to treat women in the workplace differently from men,’” Parker stated a claim for discrimination based on sex.

The Harman Firm agrees with the Fourth Circuit.  If you believe that your employer has discriminated against you based on sex, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.

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