Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment Claims Survive Dismissal; Allegations Included Supervisor’s Direct Sexual Proposition Following Complaint

In Sunkins v. Hampton Roads Connector Partners, No. 2:23cv91, 2023 WL 7411761 (E.D.Va. Nov. 9, 2023), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claim of hostile work environment sexual harassment asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Plaintiff’s allegations are based on alleged sexual comments made to her by her co-worker (Wayne), including “what do you like?” (which plaintiff interpreted as an inquiry regarding her sexual preferences), his asking her to accompany him to his home, etc., as well as by her supervisor (Jennings).

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

The court considers the distinctive aspects present here of the supervisor’s direct sexual proposition following her complaints of unwelcome conduct to him, combined with Wayne’s ongoing conduct and HRCP’s apparent failure to address the situation, as establishing a claim of a sufficiently severe or pervasive hostile workplace at this motion to dismiss juncture.

Even comparing incidents of sexual harassment in the abstract, the conduct alleged here is at least comparable to conduct in other cases where courts in this Circuit sustained plaintiffs’ hostile work environment claims. In Bland v. Fairfax Cnty., the plaintiff alleged that her supervisor made sexual comments at three in-person meetings and six telephone conversations over a six-year period. 2011 WL 1660630, at *13-15 (E.D. Va. May 3, 2011). Despite the relatively low frequency of incidents, and the lack of any physical touching or direct propositions, the court found that a reasonable juror could determine that the harassment was severe or pervasive. Id. In Lopez v. BMA Corp., the plaintiff alleged that her coworker made sexual comments to her for over a month. 2013 WL 6844361, at *2 (D. Md. Dec. 24, 2013). Although she alleged that her supervisor failed to take action to stop this behavior, she did not allege that her supervisor directly participated in the harassment or that she was sexually propositioned. Id. The District of Maryland denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss, finding that the alleged conduct was enough to plausibly state a hostile work environment claim. Id. at *10-11.
*6 After considering the full “constellation of surrounding circumstances, expectations, and relationships,” Oncale, 523 U.S. at 82, and drawing all inferences in favor of the plaintiff at this motion to dismiss stage, the court finds that Plaintiff has alleged conduct that is sufficiently severe and pervasive to cross the line into actionable harassment.

The court further held that plaintiff plausibly alleged, and thus denied defendant’s motion to dismiss, her claims of constructive discharge and retaliatory hostile work environment.

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