Over the weekend, I was reading this recent opinion from a federal judge in Maryland and, with a big smile on my face, I started polishing up my blogging crown and scepter.
Allen v. TV One, LLC is a case about a woman who alleges that she was constantly pestered by the Board Chair to marry the company CEO, the Board Chair’s son. For example, the Board Chair supposedly told the plaintiff, “I’m going to be your mother one way or another. Either you will marry [my son] or I will marry your father and be your stepmother.”
And, I’m like…this opinion has The Employer Handbook written all over it!
Except, then I remembered. I already did blog about it.
When I first blogged about this case, the plaintiff had just filed her complaint for sexual harassment and retaliation and the defendant moved to dismiss it. Specifically, the defendant argued that behavior about which the plaintiff complained was: (a) not directed at her because of her gender; and (b) neither severe nor pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment.
In denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss, the court concluded that the plaintiff had sufficiently pled these two elements of a hostile work environment. Fast forward to defendant’s motion for summary judgment. And, it would appear as though there were enough facts learned in discovery to support advancing this case to a jury.
Based on Sex.
For example, on the issue of whether the plaintiff’s gender motivated the constant badgering she received about marrying a male CEO:
Plaintiff testified in deposition that Ms. Hughes repeatedly stated that she wanted Plaintiff to marry Mr. Liggins and would introduce Plaintiff to colleagues as her “future daughter-in-law,” fueling workplace rumors of a romantic relationship between Plaintiff and Mr. Liggins. On another occasion, Ms. Hughes commented to Plaintiff that she did not know why Plaintiff had not married Mr. Liggins yet, stating that Plaintiff was old and her babies would likely be retarded….When Plaintiff went to Mr. Liggins to address the rumors, Mr. Liggins responded, “at least it makes me look good.” Viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, a reasonable jury could find that, but for her status as a woman, Plaintiff would not have been subjected to the alleged offensive conduct by Ms. Hughes and Mr. Liggins and the workplace rumors that she was involved romantically with Mr. Liggins.
Severe or Pervasive.
But could a reasonable person conclude that this behavior was either severe or pervasive? I’ll give you a hint… Let’s see if the court agrees:
Plaintiff has presented evidence that, beginning in 2004, Ms. Hughes repeatedly stated that she wanted Plaintiff to marry Mr. Liggins and would introduce Plaintiff to colleagues as her “future daughter-in-law.” Ms. Hughes often stated her desire for Plaintiff and Mr. Liggins to marry in front of others, fueling workplace rumors of a romantic relationship between Plaintiff and Mr. Liggins. Plaintiff heard these rumors from multiple colleagues in the workplace “too many [times] to count” and the rumors “never stopped.” Even after Plaintiff married her husband in 2012, she was subjected to jokes that she “[should have] just married [Mr. Liggins] like [she] was supposed to.” (Id.). According to Plaintiff, when Ms. Hughes realized that Plaintiff was not going to marry Mr. Liggins she began to continuously harass Plaintiff, including publicly berating Plaintiff in front of her co-workers; demanding that Plaintiff make requests for talent in a manner contrary to standard industry protocol; and chastising Plaintiff for taking time off for her wedding and honeymoon.
It was either this or Harvey Weinstein.
As I sat down last night to blog, I was between this case and some hot takes on Harvey Weinstein. I’ll close with a little from Column A and Column B.
Company culture is built from the top down. There are times when leaders don’t lead by example. But, when that line gets crossed, it takes courage to speak up. So, I’m often asked by HR professionals what happens — what should we do — when a brave employee complains about CEO conduct that, if true, obliterates the anti-harassment policy?
Here’s the thing.
Like me, HR represents the company. (You want your seat at the table, don’t you?) Therefore, you need to do what’s best for the company. That means, if there’s a sexual harassment complaint against the CEO, tell the Board. If there is no Board, tell the company lawyer or someone else in a position to address the situation. Whatever you do, action > inaction.
It’s important for the company to take all complaints of harassment seriously. No matter the offender, the law encourages companies to take affirmative steps to address allegations which, if true, would create a hostile work environment. And, by taking action to protect the company in this situation, you are also supporting your company’s most valuable asset: your workforce.
And whattayaknow? As I’m typing this, like clockwork, Weinstein Co. took action by firing Harvey Weinstein.