Retaliation Claim, Arising From Sexual Harassment Report, Survives Dismissal

In Karpaitis v. Mandal’s, Inc., 21-cv-305, 2022 WL 2445004 (S.D. Miss. July 5, 2022), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s retaliation claim asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

From the decision:

Plaintiff also alleges that she was terminated for engaging in the protected activity of reporting the sexual harassment. Defendant argues that Plaintiff did not have a reasonable belief that she was engaging in a protected activity. Defendant reasons that, because Owens’ alleged statement did not constitute a sexual demand, no reasonable person could interpret the statement as constituting sexual harassment. In opposition, Plaintiff contends that she must only show a good faith belief that Owens’ conduct was in violation of Title VII, and thus, her retaliation claim should not be dismissed. …

Here, Plaintiff relies on the report she made “regarding the unwelcomed sexual advances and sexual harassment from Mr. Owens.” (See Compl., ¶ 76, ECF No. 1). The report cites Owens making Plaintiff uncomfortable by looking her “up and down” and his unwelcome comments about pole dancing. (EEOC Charge, at 1-2, ECF No. 1-1). Plaintiff notes that, on both occasions, employees witnessed the incidents and noticed her discomfort. (See EEOC Charge, at 1-2, ECF No. 1-1). Plaintiff’s subjective belief that she was sexually harassed by Owens is properly alleged in the Complaint. Defendant argues that Plaintiff’s belief remains objectively unreasonable.

However, the objective reasonableness of this belief may be a fact-intensive question that is better left to summary judgment. See, e.g., Byers, 209 F.3d at 428 (holding, on a review of summary judgment evidence, that a plaintiff employee’s belief of racial discrimination was objectively unreasonable). “The objective reasonableness of a belief is evaluated based on the knowledge available to a reasonable person in the same factual circumstances with the same training and experience as the aggrieved employee.” Allen v. Admin. Review Bd., 514 F.3d 468, 477 (5th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted); see also id. (holding that, where “ ‘reasonable minds could disagree on the issue,’ the objective reasonableness of an employee’s belief should not be decided as a matter of law’ ”) (citing Lipphardt v. Durango Steakhouse of Brandon, Inc., 267 F.3d 1183, 1188 (11th Cir. 2001)). Under this factual standard the Court cannot say at the early Rule 12(b)(6) stage of this litigation that Plaintiff unreasonably believed that she was sexually harassed in violation of Title VII. See Morales v. Motion Indus., Inc., No. 3:09CV2070-N, 2010 WL 11618060, at *4 (N.D. Tex. July 8, 2010) (“Motion argues that no reasonable person could believe that the conduct Morales complained of violated Title VII and, therefore Morales did not engage in a protected activity. This argument is better suited for a motion for summary judgment.”). Defendant’s motion as to the retaliation claims is thus denied.

Interestingly, the court held that, while plaintiff sufficiently alleged retaliation, she failed to allege her underlying claim of sexual harassment.

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