Fourth Circuit Holds that Baltimore City Employee Presents Strong Case of Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment Decision Reversed: While some of my employment lawyer colleagues may disagree, in my view a definite change has come to the Fourth Circuit in its willingness to overturn federal district court decisions favorable to employers.

Virginia employers, whose cases go to the Fourth Circuit for review, should take note.

Case in point: Okoli v City of Baltimore

On August 8, 2011, the Fourth Circuit found in favor of the employee (Ms. Okoli), vacating the lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the employer (City of Baltimore) and remanding this sexual harassment case on three claims: hostile work environment, quid pro quo harassment, and retaliation. In the case, Ms. Okoli alleges that her boss, John P. Stewart, director of Baltimore‚Äôs Commission on Aging and Retirement (“CARE”), sexually harassed her.

The federal district court had dismissed Ms. Okoli’s sexual harassment claims finding, in part, that there were “[j]ust three or four incidents [of physical contact] over a five month period,” no physical threat to Ms. Okoli, and Mr. Stewart had stopped the incidents on his own. The lower court had also concluded that Ms. Okoli had read too much into certain actions, and that Mr. Stewart had decided to fire her before she reported the alleged harassment (thus negating the retaliation claim.)

The Fourth Circuit assessed the facts quite differently. In sharp contrast to the lower court’s analysis, the Fourth Circuit held that Ms. Okoli “presents a strong claim for hostile work environment” because she had suffered 12 incidents of sexually harassing misconduct in four months that spanned “fondling, kissing, propositioning, describing sexual activities, and asking intimate questions.” As the court noted, “some of the incidents may have been severe enough to be actionable in and of themselves.” The Fourth Circuit’s analysis of the employee’s quid pro quo and retaliation claims also provide useful insights for employment attorneys who bring or defend such claims.

While a few cases does not a trend make, this case and other recent decisions from the Fourth Circuit are encouraging to employees who allege serious incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Okoli v City of Baltimore — Appeal from the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, at Baltimore. William M. Nickerson, Senior District Judge; 1:06-cv-03025-WMN; Argued: March 22, 2011; Decided: August 8, 2011; Before KING, GREGORY, and WYNN, Circuit Judges.