Employers Can be Liable for Workplace Gossip Under Title VII

In many workplaces, the water cooler is a breeding ground for gossip and innuendo. Based on a recent ruling from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the water cooler is now an even more treacherous place for employers.

In Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., 2019 WL 490652 (Feb. 8, 2019), the central issue considered by the Court was whether a false rumor that a female employee slept with her male boss to obtain a promotion can ever give rise to her employer's liability under Title VII for discrimination "because of sex."

From 2014 through 2016, the plaintiff, Evangeline Parker, worked for the defendant, Reema Consulting Services, Inc. at its warehouse in Sterling, Virginia. During that time, Ms. Parker was promoted six times, ultimately becoming RCSI's Assistant Operations Manager. Just two weeks after being promoted to Assistant Operations Manager, Ms. Parker learned that male employees were circulating an unfounded, sexually-explicit rumor that she had a sexual relationship with a higher-ranking manager in order to obtain her management position.

The rumor originated with one of Ms. Parker's subordinates. However, the highest-ranking manager at RCSI's Sterling facility also participated in spreading the rumor. He was alleged to have asked Ms. Parker's rumored paramour, "hey, you sure your wife ain't divorcing you because you're f*cking [Ms. Parker]?" Even worse, the highest-ranking manager openly discussed the rumor with Ms. Parker's co-workers and went out of his way to humiliate her. He even went as far as telling Ms. Parker that "he could no longer recommend her for promotions or higher-level tasks because of the rumor," and that he "would not allow her to advance any further within the company."

Shortly after Ms. Parker complained to human resources, RCSI terminated her on May 18, 2016.

The District Court granted RCSI's Motion to Dismiss on the grounds that the rumors that Ms. Parker slept her way to the top were based upon her conduct rather than her gender. The Fourth Circuit disagreed. Ms. Parker plausibly invoked a deeply rooted perception that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success. Moreover, the Fourth Circuit noted that the dichotomy that the District Court and the employer purported to create between harassment "based on gender" and harassment based on "conduct" was not meaningful because Ms. Parker's complaint alleged that the conduct was gender-based.

It goes without stating that malicious gossip in the workplace serves no purpose and is detrimental to employee morale and productivity. After Parker, however, employers may face liability under Title VII if supervisors and managers spread gender-based gossip about employees and employers fail to promptly investigate and discipline the perpetrators.

Broderick Dunn is a partner at Cook Craig & Francuzenko, PLLC. Connect with him on LinkedIN and follow him on Twitter

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