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July 15, 2011

Quid pro quo sexual harassment

Quid pro quo sexual harassment
Pipkins v City of Temple Terrance [FL], CA11 267 F.3d 1197

In the Pipkins case the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided that harassment at the worksite as a result of a “failed consensual sexual relationship” did not support a quid pro quo sexual harassment claim filed pursuant to Title VII.

An employee alleged that she had suffered sexual harassment and retaliation within the meaning of Title VII and sued her employer, the City of Temple Terrace, Florida. A federal district court judge granted the city's motion for summary judgment and the employee appealed.

According to the decision,”[f]rom approximately June 1993 until May 1994, the employee maintained an on-again, off-again personal relationship with Daniel Klein, the City's Finance Director and Assistant City Manager. Klein was not the employee's immediate supervisor. After the employee and Klein ceased to have a sexual relationship the employee claimed that Klein continued to pursue her romantically....”

Initially given “exemplary job evaluations,” after October 1994 the employee's performance ratings began to suffer. She attributed this to the termination of her relationship with Klein and told the City's Human Relations Specialist of her concerns.

The employee alleged that in December 1994, the City Manager overheard a conversation between herself and Klein indicating the personal nature of their former relationship. After the City Manager completed an investigation, Klein was notified that he should immediately commence seeking alternate employment. Klein left the City's employ in June 1995.

The employee's job evaluations continued to deteriorate, scoring lower on her May 1995 evaluation than she had on previous ones, and worse yet on her October 1995 evaluation. As a result, The employee resigned effective January 2, 1996, approximately six months after Klein left the City's employ. She sued, claiming constructive discharge.

To establish prima facie case of quid pro quo sexual harassment, the employee was required to show: (1) that she belongs to a protected group; (2) that she has been subject to unwelcome sexual harassment; (3) that the harassment was based on her sex; (4) that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of employment; and (5) that there is a basis for holding the employer liable.

As to the issue of what constitutes sexual harassment at the work site, in Oncale v Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75, the Supreme Court said that “[t]he critical issue ... is whether members of one sex are exposed to disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment to which members of the other sex are not exposed”.

The Circuit Court said that based on Oncale, the employee did not meet the third factor -- she cannot establish that the harassment complained of was committed by reason of her sex.” Earlier rulings had distinguished between actions based on discriminatory animus and those based on personal animosity resulting from failed consensual relationships. In this case the court found that the consensual nature of the relationship between [the employee] and Klein and any resulting feelings of enmity determinative -- it was the result of personal animosity rather than any discriminatory animus.

Most of the actions of which the employee complained were committed by her immediate supervisor, Florence Lewis-Begin, rather than by Klein.

The employee contended, but offered no evidence, that Lewis-Begin was motivated by her friendship with Klein's wife to criticize her job performance. The court said that such motivation would be attributable to personal animosity and would not meet the Title VII requirement that the alteration of terms and conditions of employment be “because of... sex.”

The court, however, was quick to point out it was not deciding whether or not “once a consensual relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate is established, the subordinate could never then become victim to quid pro quo sexual harassment by that supervisor subsequent to the termination of the relationship.”

As to the employee's retaliation claim, the court found that her continuing negative evaluations were in response to well-documented job performance deficiencies. Although the employee claimed constructive discharge, her working conditions were not “so difficult ... that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign.”

As to repeatedly receiving poor evaluations, the court said that this would be unpleasant for anyone, but it does not rise to the level of such intolerable conditions that no reasonable person would remain on the job. The Circuit Court's conclusion: Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to [the employee], we agree with the district court's finding that harassment, if any, suffered by [the employee] was not the result of her gender, but rather in response to possible disappointment Klein may have experienced as a result of their failed relationship. We also agree that [the employee] has failed to establish a retaliation claim as a matter of law.

The lower court's dismissal of the employee's complaint was sustained.

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