Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me? For employers in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (governing Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina), this adage may no longer be true. In Parker v. Reema Consulting Servs., Inc., decided February 8, 2019, the court held that an employer’s failure to stop a false rumor that a female employee had a sexual relationship with her boss in order to be promoted opened it to a claim of sexual harassment by the subject of the rumor.
In Parker, Evangeline Parker started working for her employer as a low-level clerk. Within two years, she was promoted six times, ultimately rising to the level of Assistant Operations Manager. Two weeks after the last promotion, a male co-worker started a rumor that Parker received the promotion because she had a sexual relationship with her boss. A higher-ranking manager also helped to spread the rumor around. In fact, the manager held an all-staff meeting to discuss the rumor. Parker was late to the meeting and had the door to the meeting room slammed in her face when she tried to come in. However, her boss—a man—had been allowed in the meeting even though he was also late.
As the rumor spread, Parker was “treated with open resentment and disrespect” from co-workers, including those she was responsible for supervising. She alleged that her work environment “became increasingly hostile.” The manager blamed Parker for “bringing the situation in the workplace” and told her she could no longer advance in the company because she complained about the rumor. After Parker filed an internal harassment complaint, the manager fired her.
The employer argued that the rumor was not based upon Parker’s sex, but on her conduct. The Fourth Circuit rejected this position. It held that, assuming Parker’s allegations were true, the employer may be liable for failing to quash the rumor on the theory that it perpetuated a “deeply rooted perception” that women, but not men, use sex to advance in the workplace. The court explained that “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,’ it is plausibly alleged that Parker suffered harassment because she was a woman.” The court determined that the alleged harassment was severe and pervasive enough to state a claim when the harassment lasted two months, was continuous, consumed management and employees, and was at times physically threatening, e.g., the manager slamming a door in Parker’s face. The court denied the employer’s motion to dismiss and let the claim proceed.
Employers in the Fourth Circuit will have to tread carefully to properly react to and address rumors without infringing on employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act to discuss the terms and conditions of the workplace. It remains to be seen whether the case is an outlier or whether other circuits will follow suit.