Mechanic Can Pursue Claim He Was Fired for Not Having Sex With Boss

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By Patrick Dorrian

An Oklahoma trucking company must face a male mechanic’s claim that he was fired for not giving in to the sexual demands of his female supervisor, who is one of the company’s owners, a divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled ( Jones v. Needham , 2017 BL 159166, 10th Cir., No. 16-6156, 5/12/17 ).

The case is a reminder that the U.S. Supreme Court has indicated there is overlap between the two forms of sexual harassment prohibited by federal workplace bias law. Quid pro quo harassment, which occurs when a worker suffers a tangible employment action such as termination for refusing a supervisor’s demands for sex, and hostile environment harassment, which occurs when a course of conduct and/or comments make a work environment abusive, are not “wholly distinct claims,” the Tenth Circuit said May 12.

A lower court therefore erred when it found mechanic Bryan Jones didn’t give adequate notice in his Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge that he was accusing Needham Trucking LLC of quid pro quo harassment by Julie Needham, a Needham Trucking shareholder, the court said in a 2-1 decision. Allegations in an administrative bias charge describing alleged hostile environment harassment may lead the EEOC to investigate whether quid pro quo harassment also occurred because the two types of bias are so similar, it said.

Jones’ reference in his charge to “sexual remarks” by Julie Needham and his allegation that she terminated him for no reason were sufficient to trigger a look by the EEOC into whether she demanded sex from Jones and fired him for refusing her advances, Judge Paul J. Kelly held for the majority.

Attorney Bill V. Wilkinson, who represents Jones, applauded the court’s ruling. “The lower court applied a rigorous, technical standard,” he said.

Before the Supreme Court clarified in 1998 that quid pro quo and hostile environment harassment aren’t unrelated theories, some federal appeals courts had been treating the two forms of sexual harassment as completely distinct, he told Bloomberg BNA May 15. Despite the Supreme Court’s clarification, he said, “the Tenth Circuit has been very slow to recognize the distinction,” and “in my mind, this is a big departure” for the federal appeals court, which covers Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in addition to Oklahoma.

“The decision will have a significant impact and will prevent future plaintiffs from having their claims dismissed” on the same “highly technical” basis that Jones saw his claims dismissed, Wilkinson said. The court’s holding that EEOC charges shouldn’t be so carefully parsed by lower courts should help all bias claimants, whether they allege sexual harassment or some other type of discrimination, he added. He’s with Wilkinson Law Firm in Tulsa, Okla.

The company and its representatives didn’t respond May 15 to Bloomberg BNA’s requests for comment.

EEOC: No Need for Distinction Early in Case

The EEOC, which supported Jones as an amicus, “is pleased that the court recognized that administrative bias charges don’t need to be specifically detailed.” The agency weighed in because it “wanted to demonstrate that there is no need” to draw a distinction between quid pro quo harassment and hostile environment harassment, “especially at the charge-filing stage,” Philip M. Kovnat of the EEOC’s Office of General Counsel in Washington said.

The two theories of sexual harassment are just different ways of proving illegal activity under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s sex discrimination prohibition, he said.

The difference, Kovnat told Bloomberg BNA May 15, is that quid pro quo harassment requires evidence that the harassed employee was subject to discharge or some other tangible employment action, while the hostile environment theory doesn’t require such evidence. The required change in a worker’s conditions of employment needed to establish Title VII liability in a hostile work environment case stems from the severe or pervasive comments and/or other misconduct to which the worker was subjected, he said.

So, allegations that a worker was subjected to sexual advances by her boss but didn’t experience a tangible employment action as a result of rebuffing those advances could support a hostile work environment claim, Kovnat said.

“We’re glad the case is moving on the merits,” he said.

Was It ‘Open Season’ for ‘Cougar’ Boss?

It ought to be “a lively and interesting jury trial,” Wilkinson said.

Jones, he said, was a “young man, happily married” with conservative values when he joined Needham Trucking. Julie Needham, on the other hand, is a female business owner “who has a good deal of history pursuing” young male workers for sex, Wilkinson said.

She told Jones after he was hired that his predecessor had provided her with sex and that Jones was expected to do the same, the attorney told Bloomberg BNA. When Jones declined, “he was fired on the spot,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson said he confirmed with Jones’ predecessor that he was indeed forced to give in to Needham’s sexual demands and that he was terminated when he tried to break things off. “We think discovery will show there were” other victims, he said.

Needham is a “cougar” who “declared open season” on the young male workers under her supervision, Wilkinson said.

Judge David M. Ebel joined the majority opinion.

Judge Robert E. Bacharach dissented. He said Jones waived any argument regarding the sufficiency of his EEOC charge by not raising it in response to the company’s motion to dismiss or in his opening brief on appeal.

Joshua W. Solberg and Elizabeth Bowersox of McAfee & Taft in Oklahoma City represented Needham and Needham Trucking.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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