The United States District Court for the District of Maryland Determined That An Isolated Incident Can Create a Sexually Hostile Work Environment Under Title VII

Yarelyn Mena and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

In Tiffany Jones v. Family Health Centers of Baltimore, Inc., the United States District Court for the district of Maryland held that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a single incident of unwanted sexual touching may create a sexually hostile work environment.

In Jones, Ricardo Dajani, a male CFO of Family Health Centers of Baltimore, Inc. (Family Health) grabbed employee Tiffany Jones by the waist and pushed his genitals against her buttocks after locking the office door. Ms. Jones immediately reported the incident to her supervisor, and the next day attempted twice to inform Family Health’s CEO, who was “unavailable.” Ms. Jones then left work early and refused to return. Upper management requested a meeting with Ms. Jones to discuss her allegations, but the meeting never took place.  According to Family Health, Ms. Jones “refused to return to work and provide any details.” Shortly after, Ms. Jones filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This event was not the first instance of harassment Ms. Jones suffered by Mr. Dajani. Several incidents occurred before, including Mr. Dajani’s making frequent comments about “taking [Ms. Jones] away,” and blocking her path in the office hallways. Mr. Dajani denied all accusations.

Ms. Jones’s alleged sexual harassment under Title VII against Family Health. Title VII prohibits “discriminat[ion] against any individual with respect to… terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s… sex.” To establish a claim for sexual harassment, an employee must prove that the misconduct was (1) unwelcome, (2) based on the employee’s sex, (3) pervasive or severe enough as to alter the conditions of employment, and (4) imputable to an employer. Defendant’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims concerned the third and fourth prong. Concerning the third prong, the court determined that Ms. Jones’s isolated incidents of sexual harassment could be severe or pervasive. The Fourth Circuit found that the hallway encounter between Ms. Jones and Mr. Dajani was unwelcome, based on Ms. Jones sex, but fell short of being pervasive or severe. However, the incident where Mr. Dajani pushed his genitals against Ms. Jones in fact was severe, fulfilling the third prong. Without making a formal ruling, the court opined that it cannot rule out the possibility that Mr. Dajani’s conduct created a hostile work environment.

Concerning the fourth prong, the court had to consider whether Family Health was liable for Mr. Dajani’s actions. Under Title VII employers are liable for the acts of their employees where they are negligent in responding to the misconduct once the employer is made aware of the behavior or if the harassing employee is plaintiff’s supervisor. However, an employer still may escape liability where a supervisor was the harasser if it can satisfy the two elements of the Faragher-Ellerth affirmative defense: (1) the employer exercised preventive care to avoid such situations and it acted promptly to correct any harassing conduct and (2) the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of preventative measures or opportunities to remedy the situation provided by the employer. Due to issues of fact, the court was unable to definitively conclude whether Family Health exercised preventative care and consequently denied Defendant’s summary judgment.

Title VII protects employees from hostile work environments that affect employment conditions and overall well-being. The standards that must be fulfilled to meet Title VII liability are critical in assessing a hostile work environment including those facing sexual harassment.

If you were sexually harassed at your workplace, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.