Top Employment Law Attorney Answers: Can gossip be sexual harassment? How do I stop rumors at work? How can I make my co-workers stop talking about me? How do I find a sexual harassment lawyer?
From the halls of the local high schools to the celebrity magazines in the grocery store check-out lanes, gossip runs rampant in this country. Unfortunately, gossip can also run rampant in the workplace. Being the subject of workplace gossip can have serious repercussions, such as the loss of respect of co-workers and even the loss of career advancement opportunities. When does workplace gossip stop being merely a personal problem and start crossing the line into sexual harassment?
A federal court in Indiana addressed this question in Billings v. Southwest Allen County School Corp., 1:12-CV-184 (N.D. Ind. 10/17/13). Heather Billings, a bus driver for Southwest Allen County School Corporation (“SACS”) in Indiana, filed a lawsuit against SACS for retaliation. Billings bussed high school, middle school, and elementary students to and from schools in the county. Billings was the subject of gossip from several other male and female county bus drivers. Behind her back, Heather was often referred to as “skinny bitch,” “backstabber,” and “the whore of transportation.” Among her co-workers, there were rumors circulating that Billings was having various affairs with other bus drivers and that the baby that Billings was carrying may be a product of one of the affairs. Someone even went as far as putting a greeting card in a male co-worker’s mailbox congratulating him on the birth of his new baby. Billings was married, and there was no proof that she was having an affair, nor was there proof that her husband was not the father of her baby. There was also evidence that the coworkers targeted other female drivers For those of us who feared the “Mean Girls” in high school, it’s especially troubling to learn that they may even follow us into adulthood!
All this gossip, of course, distressed Billings, who would go home crying. Disturbingly, this gossip continued for at least two years. Billings reported this to Human Resources three times. She was told by Human Resources after one report that this was a “personal disagreement,” not sexual harassment. Only two months after her third report, Billings was terminated when a cafeteria worker reported that students were standing on Billings’ bus while it was in motion.
Billings filed suit alleging that her termination was retaliation for her reports of sexual harassment. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the prohibition of sexual discrimination also prohibits sexual harassment. This is also true under Ohio sexual harassment laws. Sexual harassment does not have to be motivated by sexual desire, and it can be of two kinds: (1) Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment and (2) Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment. To prove Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment, a plaintiff must show: (1) she was a member of a protected class; (2) she was subjected to unwelcome sexual harassment; (3) the harassment was based on sex; (4) the sexual harassment unreasonably interfered with her work performance and created an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment; and (5) the situation was such that the employer is liable for the actions of the harassing employee. Further, Title VII and Ohio law protect reporting reasonable beliefs of sexual harassment. It is a violation to retaliate, for example by taking an adverse action such as termination, against any person who reports a claim a sexual harassment.
Although SACS challenged that there was no harassment based on gender at all, the District Court held: “Unfounded accusations that a woman worker is a ‘whore,’ a siren, carrying on with her coworkers, a Circe, ‘sleeping her way to the top,’ and so forth are capable of making the workplace unbearable for the woman verbally so harassed, and since these are accusations based on the fact that she is a woman, they could constitute a form of sexual harassment.” (quoting McDonnell v. Cisneros, 84 F.3d 256, 259-60 (7th Cir. 1996)). This does not always mean that it sexual harassment – just that it “could constitute” sexual harassment.
Turning to the retaliation claim, the District Court held: “To establish that she engaged in protected activity, Billings must show that she had a reasonable belief that a Title VII violation occurred when she complained to SACS. … That is, she must show that she had a ‘sincere and reasonable belief’ that she was opposing sexual harassment. … This requirement “is not onerous. … Billings simply has to show that her belief that she was complaining about unlawful discrimination was not ‘completely groundless.” While SACS disputed that any of Billings’ complaints were sexual harassment complaints, the trial court considered that “in response to Billings’s complaint in December 2007, Davis noted ‘to schedule sexual harassment training’ and then actually conducted sexual harassment training.” Then the trial court looked at the fact that similarly situated employees that had not complained about sexual harassment were treated more favorably: “SACS’s attempt to minimize other drivers’ accidents as ‘honest errors’ and magnify Billings’s failure to write up students as ‘insubordination’ also does not square.”
For these reasons, the trial court held that there were sufficient facts and evidence to let a jury decide if the gossip amounted to sexual harassment and whether the employer retaliated for complaints of sexual harassment. Critically, this shows the importance of lodging complaints when employee believes that there is sexual harassment (or race, gender, religious, disability or national origin discrimination) going on in the workplace because the retaliation claim is often stronger than the underlying harassment or discrimination claim.
Sexual harassment is unlawful under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and similar Ohio laws. Sexual harassment is a form of gender discrimination. If you feel that you are being sexually harassed or are working in a sexually charged or hostile working environment, you should not wait to call the right attorney at 866-797-6040 to schedule a free and confidential consultation. At Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm, you will meet with a sexual harassment lawyer/hostile work environment attorney to find out what your legal rights are and the best way to protect them. Sexual harrassment is a form of gender discrimination, and employers should be held accountable if they discriminate against female workers in any fashion – but particularly for sexual harrassment. It does not matter if you have been wrongfully fired or are still employed, there is no reason to wait to find out what your legal rights are and how to protect yourself from sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
The materials available at the top of this page and at this gender discrimination, wrongful termination, and sex harassment law website are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. If you are still asking “what should I do …”, “I’m being sexually harassed …” “my supervisor grabbed my…”, “my boss is touching…,” “I’ve been wrongfully terminated,” or “how do I …”, your best course is to contact an Ohio sexual harassment attorney/hostile work environment lawyer to obtain advice with respect to sexual harassment/hostile work environment questions or any particular employment law issue. Use and access to this employment law website or any of the links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship. The legal opinions expressed at the top of this page or through this employment law website are the opinions of the individual lawyer and may not reflect the opinions of Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm, Brian Spitz, or any individual attorney.