The Rumor Mill: A Case Study on Workplace Conduct - How Perpetuating Workplace Rumors Can Create Employer Liability for Gender Discrimination

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On February 8, 2019, the Fourth Circuit ruled an employer can be liable for gender discrimination for spreading false rumors that a female employee slept with her male boss to obtain a promotion. Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., 915 F.3d 297 (4th Cir. 2019). Before turning to the facts of this case, let me say this: the ruling represents nothing new under the law.

Evangeline Parker began working for Reema Consulting Services, Inc. ("Reema") in December 2014 as a low level clerk, but rose quickly through the ranks, receiving six promotions and ultimately becoming the Assistant Operations Manager in March 2016. A male employee, Donte Jennings, hired at the same time and same level as Ms. Parker was upset by her quick ascension through the ranks and started a rumor she had engaged in a sexual relationship with her superior, Demarcus Pickett, in order to get her management position.

If this had been the totality of the facts, Reema likely would not have been found liable for gender discrimination. Unfortunately for the employer, the rumor did not stop with Jennings. Rather than stopping the rumor, the highest ranking manager at the facility where Ms. Parker worked, Larry Moppins, actually "participated in spreading the rumor," going so far as to tell Mr. Pickett, "Hey, you sure your wife ain't divorcing you because you're f--king [Parker]?"

As the rumor spread throughout the warehouse, Ms. Parker began to experience an increasingly hostile work environment. In addition to being treated with open resentment and disrespect by coworkers, including subordinates, Ms. Parker was disciplined by Mr. Moppins for allegedly "bringing the situation to the workplace." Mr. Moppins eventually notified Ms. Parker he would no longer be able to promote her any further within the company as a result of the rumor. He also excluded her from meetings and said he should have terminated Ms. Parker when she became upset about the false rumor spreading.

Ms. Parker eventually filed an internal sexual harassment complaint in late April/early May 2016 against Mr. Moppins. Days passed with no response from Reema to Ms. Parker's complaint.

In mid-May 2016, Mr. Jennings (the disgruntled male) filed a complaint against Ms. Parker, claiming she was creating a hostile work environment. The company immediately instructed Ms. Parker to have no contact with Mr. Jennings. Although Ms. Parker followed that instruction, Mr. Jennings frequently spent time in Ms. Parker's work area (even though he did not work there), distracting Ms. Parker's subordinates, and smirking and laughing at Ms. Parker. When Ms. Parker brought the situation to management, nothing was done.

A few days after Mr. Jennings made his complaint, Reema met with Ms. Parker to issue her two write-ups. Mr. Moppins was present for this meeting. The first related to Mr. Jennings' complaint against Ms. Parker. The second was for insubordination to Moppins. In that same meeting, Reema terminated Ms. Parker's employment.  

The district court initially granted Reema's Motion to Dismiss and the Fourth Circuit reversed.

What are the lessons here?

This is a case study of what not to do. It is always the job of management to stop, rather than perpetuate, harassment or discrimination. When Mr. Moppins heard the rumor about Ms. Parker and Mr. Pickett, he should have immediately put a stop to it. Instead, he engaged in it. 

Next, it was completely inappropriate for Mr. Moppins to refuse to promote Ms. Parker on the basis of an unfounded and unproven rumor. If there was truly a concern about such behavior, Reema should have conducted an investigation and taken appropriate disciplinary steps either against Ms. Parker and Mr. Pickett (for the conduct) or against Mr. Jennings (for the rumor) depending on the outcome of that investigation.  

Third, remember, an employee who reports discrimination or harassment is always protected from retaliation for that report. The facts in the Fourth Circuit's Order suggest the company ignored Ms. Parker's complaint, but immediately responded to the complaint made by Mr. Jennings, the person who initiated the rumor in the first place. This sort of disproportionate treatment of people who report claims is always going to create issues for the employer.  

Fourth, if there is a policy, use it. Here, Reema had a progressive discipline policy, but did not follow it. Reema instead decided to dump a number of issues on Ms. Parker and to fire her despite no prior discipline. Such a decision seemed particularly ill-timed in light of Ms. Parker's pending, but not investigated, complaint against Mr. Moppins. Having the accused (Mr. Moppins) participate in the termination meeting also was unwise.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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