Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment Claim, Arising From Sexual Assault, Survives Summary Judgment

In Sherman-Harris-Golson v. Forest Park Municipal Authority, Case No. CIV-21-466-F, 2023 WL 8704736 (W.D.Okla. Dec. 15, 2023), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s claim of hostile work environment sexual harassment asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As to the issue of whether the alleged harassment was “severe or pervasive”, the court explained:

On July 24, 2019, Golson made a report to the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office that Milton had sexually assaulted her on two occasions. In a handwritten statement, Golson reported that on the first occasion, which occurred on January 19, 2019, Milton pulled her into the police department bathroom and tried to kiss her. She turned her head, but he grabbed her by the back of the neck with his hand, and with the other hand turned her face and kissed her. She told him “no,” and she told him she was married. Doc. no. 73-11, ECF p. 2. The officer with the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office also reported that Golson told him that Milton felt her breast and rubbed up and down her body with his hands during the incident. Doc. no. 73-10, ECF p. 3. As to the second occasion, Golson reported in her written statement that she thought it occurred in April of 2019, but has testified in deposition that she is unsure of the exact date of the incident. According to Golson, on the second occasion, Milton grabbed her again in the same way and took her into the bathroom and placed her hand on his penis, grabbed her, and kissed her. The officer reported Milton’s penis as “erect.” Id. Golson also reported Milton grabbed her “nipple.” Doc. no. 73-11, ECF p. 3. She pulled and pushed away, told him “no,” and she left the building. Id. In deposition, Golson testified that during each of the alleged sexual assaults, Milton threatened Golson and her family, stating that he would hurt them. Doc. no. 101-1, ECF p. 35, ll. 14-21.

Viewing the record evidence in a light most favorable to Golson,5 the court concludes that the evidence raises a genuine issue of material fact about whether Milton’s conduct was sufficiently severe to alter the terms of Golson’s employment and create an abusive working environment. A reasonable jury could conclude that the circumstances were “particularly threatening or humiliating” and involved the “groping of body parts.” See, Throupe, 988 F.3d at 1255. The court concludes that Forest Park is not entitled to summary judgment as to whether Golson can establish a hostile work environment based on the alleged sexual assaults by Milton.

Next, the court turned to the issue of vicarious liability – i.e., whether the harassment may be imputed to the defendant. On this point, the court held that there was sufficient evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Milton was plaintiff’s “supervisor.”

However, since plaintiff did not raise a genuine dispute as to whether the unlawful harassment “culminated” in the tangible employment action (here, her termination), defendant was permitted to invoke the “Faragher/Ellerth” affirmative defense, which required it to demonstrate that (1) it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior, and (2) plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise.

The court held that plaintiff presented evidence sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact on both elements, such that plaintiff’s Title VII hostile work environment claim must proceed to trial.

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