Sexual Harassment Claim Survives Summary Judgment; Jury Must Decide Defendant’s Knowledge of Harassment and Adequacy of Response Harassment Allegations

In a recent case, Schneider v. Trumbull County Veterans Service Commission, 2023 WL 2500173 (N.D.Ohio March 14, 2023), the court denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s sexual harassment claim.

Here, the parties conceded that plaintiff “established that she experienced unwelcome harassment based on sex and that the harassing conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to affect the ‘terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, or any matter directly or indirectly related to employment.” [Cleaned up.]

They did dispute, however, whether defendant knew about plaintiff’s harassment prior to plaintiff’s formal report, and whether it responded appropriately after receiving plaintiff’s sexual harassment complaint.

In ruling in plaintiff’s favor, the court explained:

Plaintiff provided examples of instances when Mr. Isenberg made harassing comments to her in front of other co-workers prior to her reporting his inappropriate behavior on February 20, 2020. For example, when Mr. Isenberg told Plaintiff that he wanted to make Plaintiff “his sex slave” and keep her “locked up in a box in his basement,” another TCVSC employee, Tommy D. was present. ECF No. 28 at PageID #: 347 (Adrienne Schneider Tr.). There were other times when Mr. Isenberg would allegedly harass Plaintiff while she was sitting at her desk and other co-workers such as Robin LeDuc and Chuck Ciapala were within earshot. Mr. Ciapala definitely heard Mr. Isenberg’s unwarranted comments directed at Plaintiff because Mr. Ciapala seemed to encourage Mr. Isenberg’s behavior by saying “well, there you go. She’s not married, so keep at it.” ECF No. 28 at PageID #: 350–51. Additionally, Plaintiff points to statements that Mr. Breuer and Ms. Delgado made during their respective depositions, which indicate that the Executive Director and Deputy Director of TCVSC were under the impression that “something was going on” between Plaintiff and Mr. Isenberg. ECF No. 37 at PageID #: 1363. Perhaps none of these facts alone are smoking guns in and of themselves, but the culmination of these facts is sufficient to demonstrate the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact with regard to whether Defendant knew or should have known about the ongoing sexual harassment that Plaintiff was suffering.

The parties stipulate that Mr. Isenberg stopped harassing Plaintiff after she reported his unwelcomed behavior on February 20, 2020. ECF No. 40 at PageID #: 1432. The Sixth Circuit has held that an employer’s response is “generally adequate…if it is ‘reasonably calculated to end the harassment.’ ” Hawkins v. Anheuser-Busch, Inc., 517 F.3d 321, 340 (6th Cir. 2008) (quoting Jackson v. Quanex Corp., 191 F.3d 647, 663–64 (6th Cir. 1999)). Defendant argues that its response was adequate because the sexual harassment ceased after Mr. Breuer reprimanded Mr. Isenberg. Plaintiff argues that Defendant’s response was nevertheless inadequate because Defendant never bothered to conduct an investigation or attempt to substantiate Plaintiff’s claims. Furthermore, if Defendant knew or had reason to know that Mr. Isenberg was sexually harassing Plaintiff, it did not take immediate corrective action until after Plaintiff made her formal report. Mr. Breuer merely issued a written reprimand and met with Mr. Isenberg regarding Plaintiff’s complaint, but he neither made it known to Mr. Isenberg that Plaintiff specifically reported sexual harassment, nor did he conduct any further investigation and attempt to substantiate Plaintiff’s claims.

The court concluded that “[r]easonable minds may find that Mr. Breuer’s actions were not reasonably calculated to end the harassment given that Defendant’s response to Plaintiff’s sexual harassment grievances was essentially issuing Mr. Isenberg only a symbolic slap on the wrist,” and that defendant’s “knowledge of the harassment and the adequacy of its response to Plaintiff’s report of the harassment are questions for a jury.”

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