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Fourth Circuit: expectations of occupation matter

On Behalf of | Aug 9, 2022 | Employment Law

Statistics concerning sexual harassment by men against women in the workplace for 2022 reveal many fascinating yet startling trends. For example, seven out of 10 disabled females have endured some form of sexual harassment at work. Only 34% of workers understand or sense the concept of sexual harassment in the workplace. At the same time, 99% of workers completely understand an instance of sexual harassment.

How could individuals report seemingly contradictory information? A recent court case from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals may explain. A female employee claimed sexual harassment by one of her special education students, a male with Down’s Syndrome.

After pursuing appeals through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the employee filed a claim in district court. The lower court ruled in favor of the employer (the school board), stating that the employee had not satisfied the legal requirements of a hostile work environment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Elements of a “hostile work environment” claim

In supporting the decision, the court recognized the complex balance between the right of all students to a public-school education and the need to maintain a nonhostile work environment for employees. The decision clarified how a court applies the four requirements of “hostile work environment” necessary for a case to a set of complex facts with competing interests. The employee had to prove that the student’s conduct was:

  • Unwelcome
  • Based on the teacher’s sex
  • Sufficiently severe to change her conditions of employment and create an abusive work environment
  • The responsibility of her employer

While the school board offered expert testimony regarding the reasonable behavior and expectations of a child with Down’s Syndrome, the employee provided documentation almost exclusively regarding her subjective interpretations and refusal to agree to alternatives proposed by the school board. The court agreed that she satisfied only the first element of her claim.

Knowledge of the law

Workplace relationships remain conducive to opportunities for sexual harassment. Professional consequences, such as retaliation, affect long-term financial and emotional consequences. An attorney with knowledge of the legal requirements for a sexual harassment case can provide guidance.