Best to Keep it to Yourself: 4th Circuit Finds That False Gossip Can Give Rise to a Hostile Work Environment
February 25, 2019
By: Benjamin J. Wilson
On February 8, 2019, the Fourth Circuit, which covers West Virginia, ruled that false rumors in the workplace can give rise to liability for an employer for a hostile work environment. The case Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., begins innocently enough. The Plaintiff in this case was hired as a low-level clerk for Reema Consulting, but quickly rose through the ranks, receiving six promotions within a two-year period. Naturally, a co-worker of hers became jealous of her meteoric rise in the company, especially considering they had been hired around the same time and he was now her subordinate. In March 2016, the Plaintiff received her final promotion and was named the Assistant Operations Manager in Sterling, Virginia.
That is when the rumor mill started turning. A jealous male co-worker began spreading the rumor that the only reason the Plaintiff had ascended so far in such a short time was not because of her skill or aptitude for the job, but rather because she had had a sexual relationship with another higher-ranking manager. Unfortunately for the Plaintiff, this rumor spread to even the highest-ranking manager in the facility. She alleged to be mistreated, her reputation ruined, and eventually terminated because of this rumor. She then brought the lawsuit, claiming she was subjected to a hostile work environment and discrimination based on sex, as well as a retaliatory termination claim, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
The district court granted Reema Consulting’s motion to dismiss on the grounds that Title VII protects gender and not conduct, though the district court empathized with the Plaintiff being subjected to such rumors. Moreover, the district court also concluded that the harassment was not severe or pervasive because the rumors persisted for a relatively short period of time. As to the retaliation claim, the district court reasoned that, because the Plaintiff could not establish that the actions in her first claim were discriminatory she could not show that her belief was objectively reasonable, and thus could not establish a claim for retaliation.
The Fourth Circuit reversed. The court rejected Reema Consulting’s argument that its termination of her had been solely about her conduct and therefore not based on her gender because the same rumor could have easily been brought against a male employee. In rejecting this argument, the court stated that Reema Consulting “fail[ed] to take into account all of the allegations of the complaint.” In particular, the court stated:
As alleged, 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 women, not men, use sex to achieve success.
The court also pointed to the fact that her male co-workers had started and circulated the false rumor and that the Plaintiff was the only employee sanctioned on account of these rumors, despite several harassment complaints being filed against others. These factors led the court to conclude that the district court erred in dismissing the claim because it was plausible that the Plaintiff was discriminated against because the alleged conduct was also gender-based.
Addressing the “severe and pervasive” element of her harassment claim, the court reasoned that all circumstances needed to be examined. Though the alleged harassment took place over an approximate six-week period, the rumors were continuous and preoccupied not only the Plaintiff but her co-workers and management and affected her employment future with Reema Consulting. She additionally faced a false complaint on account of the rumor, by the original co-worker no less, and was subjected to discipline for it. Finally, the court found that the harassment from the rumor was “all-consuming” for the period of time it persisted, humiliated the Plaintiff, and interfered with her work. Thus, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court on Plaintiff’s discrimination claim and subsequently reversed the district court on the retaliation claim, since the Plaintiff could establish a case of discrimination.
For now, the case returns to the district court, where it will be seen whether the Plaintiff prevails. However, the Fourth Circuit now joins the Third and Seventh Circuits—which it also cited in its opinion—as courts that have ruled that “sleeping-your-way-to-the-top” rumors can constitute sexual harassment. And while the Fourth Circuit focused on the double standard that women have long-faced in the workplace, it would not be that much of a stretch to find the same vicious rumors could apply equally to a man.
All this to say, if there are salacious rumors in the workplace, managers and human resources personnel need to make sure they are addressed, not perpetuated.