Appeals court: Rumors about woman sleeping to top could leave employer on hook for discrimination suit

By John Breslin | Mar 6, 2019

Legal experts are describing as significant a federal appeals court ruling that determined rumors falsely hinting a woman slept with management to advance in her company, could leave an employer on the hook for a sex discrimination violation under the Civil Rights Act.

The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., overturned a Maryland district court ruling, finding the woman can continue her claim of sex discrimination under Title VII of the act.

"This ruling is significant in several respects," Kyla Miller, an attorney with the firm of Seyfarth Shaw, of Chicago and specialist in employment law, recently told the Cook County Record.

"The Fourth Circuit has now joined the Third and Seventh circuits in finding rumors about a female employee sleeping with management to obtain a promotion implicates sex (discrimination) under Title VII," Miller said. "The court noted the unfortunate but persistent stereotypes that still exist in the workplace that women, rather than men, will use their sexuality to find success."

Kyla Miller   Seyfarth Shaw

Further, the panel noted that while the "rumor implicated both a man and woman, it was the woman who was punished by management and ultimately terminated" due to the spreading of the rumor.

"While this case poses a rather extreme example of inconsistent treatment of employees on the basis of sex, it serves as a great example of why it is critical that employers handle these types of rumors confidentially, to the extent possible, and why management must be careful to treat similarly situated employees consistently," Miller said.

Details of the case emerged both at district and circuit court levels. The woman had joined the company at entry level but made rapid progress, with six promotions in two years, until she held the post of warehouse manager.

A male coworker who had joined the company at the same time then purportedly spread the rumor that she slept her way to promotions and to the position.

The district court found that the the hostile work environment engendered by the rumor was not due to her sex, but bullying and harassment based on the false rumor.

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Seyfarth Shaw, LLP U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

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