Sexual Harassment, Based on Alleged Misogynistic Language and Sexual Rumors, Survives Summary Judgment

In Longhorn v. Oregon Department of Corrections, Civ. No. 6:21-cv-01267-MC, 2023 WL 3602780 (D.Or. May 23, 2023), the court denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s hostile work environment sexual harassment claim.

After summarizing the black letter law applicable to this claim, the court applied it to the facts, as follows:

Plaintiff contends that sexual rumors about her circulating throughout the prison negatively affected her ability to work as a corrections officer and created a hostile environment. Pl.’s Resp. 17–18, ECF No. 63. DOC argues that the rumors were not sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of Plaintiff’s employment. Def.’s Mot. 10, ECF No. 46. The Court finds that disputed issues of fact preclude summary judgment on Plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim.

As to the first two elements of Plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim, Plaintiff demonstrated that she experienced unwanted verbal harassment of a sexual nature. The rumors circulating throughout the prison included that Plaintiff had sex with Klimek to advance her career, that Plaintiff was part of a sex ring, and that she was having sex with other officers in the prison parking lot. Spooner Decl. Ex. 1, at 8–9, 15, 17. Additionally, Plaintiff was referred to as a “lying bitch” and “whore.” Middleton Decl. Ex. 1, at 22. Such rumors and gendered name calling involving Plaintiff’s sexual reputation are necessarily sexual in nature, and DOC does not contend otherwise.

As to the third element, the Court finds that a reasonable jury could conclude that Plaintiff’s workplace was abusive. Plaintiff testified that she heard the rumors from her coworkers daily. The emotional impact of this treatment required her to take leave multiple times due to anxiety and panic attacks. She switched to an overnight shift to avoid her coworkers. She experienced problems with AICs respecting her authority and began feeling unsafe at work. Plaintiff demonstrated that she perceived her work environment as hostile. Further, when viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, a reasonable woman could find Plaintiff’s work environment objectively hostile and abusive. This is not a case of offhand comments or isolated incidents. The evidence reflects that Plaintiff was the subject of targeted, sexual rumors occurring on a regular basis for nearly a year. Particularly in the context of working in a prison, rumors of this sort could pose physical safety risks for a female officer. AICs were aware of rumors about Plaintiff and Klimek, and some began acting out toward Plaintiff. One can easily imagine why Plaintiff began feeling unsafe and unable to effectively work as a corrections officer when fellow officers refused to speak to her yet permeated the prison with derogatory rumors about her. Erin Reyes, a human resources investigator for DOC, explained that a law enforcement officer not having the support of her fellow officers can create safety issues on the job. Middleton Decl. Ex. 5, at 7–8. And Plaintiff did in fact feel that because her coworkers had no respect for her and wouldn’t talk to her, she did not know whether her coworkers would “have [her] back if [she] need[ed] them to.” Middleton Decl. Ex. 1, at 15. Plaintiff reported the rumors as well as her concerns about AICs hearing the rumors to her supervisors, and DOC took no remedial action.

The court concluded that “[c]onsidering the totality of the circumstances, there is sufficient evidence for a jury to find that the sexual harassment Plaintiff experienced was severe and pervasive enough to alter the conditions of her employment and create a hostile work environment.

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