Federal Appeals Court Rules that Office Gossip Can Lead to Title VII Claims for Sexual Harassment

A time-tested way to diminish a woman’s authority in the workplace is to allege that she only attained her position through sexual favors, also known as “sleeping her way to the top.” This trope has probably been around for as long as women have existed in spaces perceived to belong to men. Unfortunately, that still describes many workplaces in 2019. Earlier this year, a federal appellate court considered a case in which a woman alleged that co-workers started a false rumor about her in this vein. The court ruled that an employer could be liable in this scenario under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. New York City sexual harassment attorneys should take note of the court’s discussion of workplace rumor.

Title VII identifies two categories of sexual harassment as unlawful sex discrimination. Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when submitting to sexual activity of some sort is a condition of obtaining or keeping a job, or of obtaining various employment benefits. A hostile work environment occurs when unwelcome sexual remarks or conduct renders the workplace objectively intolerable.

The “slept her way to the top” trope combines both types of unlawful sexual harassment. First, it flips the quid pro quo scenario. Instead of a male supervisor or manager demanding sexual favors in exchange for a promotion or some other employment benefits, it alleges that a female employee offers sexual favors. Second, the effect of “slept her way to the top” rumors often take the form of a hostile work environment. For some reason—i.e. sexism or misogyny—the trope generally only views the woman as being in the wrong. The male supervisor or manager never seems to be faulted for allegedly agreeing to provide employment benefits for sex.

The plaintiff began working for the defendant at a warehouse facility in December 2014. Her initial job, according to the court, was as a “low-level clerk.” She advanced quickly, however, and received six promotions. This culminated with her promotion to “Assistant Operations Manager” in March 2016. She learned shortly after this promotion that several male employees were spreading a false rumor about a sexual relationship between her and a senior manager, which they claimed was the reason for her promotions.

As a result of this rumor, the plaintiff alleged that she was excluded from management meetings and subjected to varieties of verbal harassment and abuse at work. She claimed that the male manager with whom she was supposedly involved did not face any mistreatment at all. The defendant eventually fired her, she claimed, in retaliation for filing an internal sexual harassment complaint. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed her claims for hostile work environment and retaliation, allowing them to proceed to trial.

In its ruling, the Fourth Circuit cited a 1994 decision from the Third Circuit that addressed “traditional negative stereotypes regarding the relationship between the advancement of women in the workplace and their sexual behavior.” It also cited a decision issued in 2004 by the Second Circuit, whose jurisdiction includes New York. That ruling held that stereotypes about single mothers could give rise to Title VII liability.

The knowledgeable and experienced employment lawyers at Phillips & Associates represent New York City employees, former employees, and job applicants in claims of quid pro quo or hostile work environment sexual harassment under the laws of New York City, New York State, and the United States. Please contact us today at (212) 248-7431 or online to schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you.

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