Sexual Harassment Victim’s Romantic Relationships With Colleagues Off-Limits for Discovery, Court Rules

In Holcomb v. State Univ. of New York at Fredonia, No. 12CV673A, 2015 WL 1280442 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 20, 2015), the Western District of New York denied defendants’ motion to compel the plaintiff to respond to questions relating to her romantic experiences with her colleagues.

In this case, plaintiff sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, asserting that defendants retaliated against her after she rejected an inappropriate sexual advance towards her by a defendant (Dr. Boelter).

Defendants sought, among other items, “to have the plaintiff respond to deposition questions concerning her romantic interactions with colleagues as well as her understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace.” Defendants

seek to inquire into the plaintiff’s relationships with colleagues for the purpose of examining Plaintiff’s state of mind as to whether romantic overtures, without more, constitute sexual harassment. Defendants do not intend to inquire into Plaintiff’s sexual behavior but rather whether Plaintiff dated other colleagues and how she responded to other colleagues’ expressions of romantic interest. According to the defendants this is relevant because it is Dr. Boelter’s alleged romantic interest in Plaintiff which forms the basis of this lawsuit. The plaintiff appears to argue that Dr. Boelter’s conduct was so innocuous that it did not raise to the level of sexual harassment and that the plaintiff misconstrued Dr. Boelter’s conduct. The defendants argue that the information is relevant to the plaintiff’s lack of understanding of sexual harassment within the work place, and the delineation between sexual harassment and a ‘romantic advance.

The court rejected this request.

Initially, it observed that notwithstanding the breadth of discovery permitted by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1), the Advisory Committee counsels that:

In order not to undermine the rationale of [Federal] Rule [of Evidence] 412 [which prohibits the use of evidence offered to prove that a victim engaged in other sexual behavior or a victim’s sexual predisposition, however, courts should enter appropriate orders pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(c) to protect the victim against unwarranted inquiries and to ensure confidentiality. Courts should presumptively issue protective orders barring discovery unless the party seeking discovery makes a showing that the evidence sought to be discovered would be relevant under the facts and theories of the particular case, and cannot be obtained except through discovery. In an action for sexual harassment, for instance, while some evidence of the alleged victim’s sexual behavior and/or predisposition in the workplace may perhaps be relevant, non-work place conduct will usually be irrelevant.

It then explained why the evidence of plaintiff’s romantic involvement with other co-workers was not discoverable in the context of this case:

The Court is not persuaded that plaintiff’s subjective perceptions regarding her experiences with romantic overtures involving other colleagues is relevant to the question of whether the alleged actions attributed to Dr. Boelter constitute impermissible conduct under Title VII. The Court notes that the plaintiff’s claims in this case are all retaliation claims—based upon alleged conduct by the defendants in response to the plaintiff’s filing of a grievance. The plaintiff has not asserted a Title VII quid pro quo or hostile work environment claim against the defendants. Protected activity for purposes of retaliation claims under Title VII, and the related state statutes, encompasses an employee’s complaint to supervisors about alleged unlawful activity, even if the activity turned out not to be unlawful, provided that the employee had a good faith, reasonable belief that he was opposing an employment practice made unlawful by Title VII. The objective reasonableness of a complaint is to be evaluated from the perspective of a reasonable similarly situated person. Thus, Dr. Boelter’s conduct may be fairly construed, for the purposes of the plaintiff’s claims, by objective consideration of the facts and circumstances surrounding the alleged conduct itself—the interactions between the plaintiff and Dr. Boelter. The defendants have not demonstrated that the plaintiff’s unrelated romantic interactions with other colleagues would assist the Court, construing the alleged conduct as a matter of law in the context of a dispositive motion, or a jury considering the conduct at trial, in the determination of whether the plaintiff had an objectively reasonable belief that Dr. Boelter’s conduct constituted sexual harassment. The defendants have not demonstrated that comparing the plaintiff’s response to a romantic gesture made by another colleague (who was not her supervisor) would inform the determination of whether Dr. Boelter’s conduct crossed the line from romantic gesture to sexual harassment. Nor have the defendants demonstrated that discovery into the plaintiff’s unrelated romantic experiences with other colleagues would lead to discoverable information relevant to whether Dr. Boelter’s conduct was impermissible or not. The defendants’ argument appears to challenge whether the plaintiff understands the legal definition of what constitutes sexual harassment as opposed to a romantic gesture. For example, the defendants argue that the plaintiff claims retaliation based upon her decline of a romantic advance, yet she has refused to articulate the line between the sexual harassment and romantic interest or discuss her experiences and responses to workplace romantic gestures. To the extent that the defendants contend that the plaintiff does not know the difference between sexual harassment and a non-actionable romantic overture, the defendants have not demonstrated that the plaintiff’s understanding of this legal standard is the proper subject of discovery, particularly in light of Rule 412. Based upon this record, the Court is not persuaded that the plaintiff’s relationships with other colleagues are relevant to her claims in this case.

This case illustrates that there are rules in place to protect against unwarranted intrusion into an employment discrimination plaintiff’s romantic/personal life.

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