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Employment Law Blog
James Tarquin, P.A
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Must A Victim’s Complaint Use The Words “Sexual Harassment” To Be Protected Against Retaliation?

Sexual harassment at workplace word on paper

Having represented sexual harassment victims for nearly twenty years, our Marion County, Florida sexual harassment lawyers have learned that employers invariably deny that sexual harassment victims lodged a complaint about the sexually harassing behavior they endured.  Once a sexual harassment lawsuit is filed, employers will refuse to admit that any complaint made by the victim against the sexual harassment was, in fact, a sexual harassment complaint.  Employers will maintain that the victim simply made a vague, generalized complaint that the sexual harasser’s behavior was unprofessional, rude, or disrespectful.  The employers’ argument, distilled to its essence, is that unless a sexual harassment victim uses the words “sexual harassment” when complaining about the sexual harasser, the complaint about the sexual harasser was not a sexual harassment complaint.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), employees are protected from retaliation when they complain about perceived sexual harassment in the workplace.  By arguing that the sexual harassment victim never complained about sexual harassment, employers further maintain that the sexual harassment victim was not protected by Title VII from retaliation because he or she did not, in fact, complain about sexual harassment.  In other words, employers claim that because no sexual harassment complaint was made, Title VII’s protection against retaliation was never triggered and they were lawfully permitted to retaliate against the sexual harassment victim. The decision by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Okoli v. City of Baltimore, 648 F.3d 216 (4th Cir. 2011) demonstrates that a sexual harassment victim does not have to explicitly mention “sexual harassment” when complaining about the sexual harasser in order to be protected against retaliation.

Sexual Harassment Victim Complains About Harasser

In that case, Katrina Okoli (Okoli) brought a retaliation claim against her former employer, the City of Baltimore (the City) pursuant to Title VII.  Okoli alleged that the City violated Title VII by firing her in retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment.  Okoli worked for the City as an executive assistant to a man named Stewart.  Stewart was Okoli’s immediate supervisor and served in the Mayor’s cabinet.

Shortly after her employment began, Stewart began subjecting Okoli to a pattern of unwanted sexually harassing behavior.  Stewart’s sexual behavior towards Okoli included forcibly kissing her, fondling her leg, sexually propositioning her, asking her sexually explicit questions, and describing sexual activities he wished to perform.  Throughout the time period of the harassment, Okoli stressed to Stewart that she only wanted to have a professional relationship.

Because the harassment continued despite her spurning Stewart’s advances, Okoli began reaching out for help.  Okoli first emailed a management-level employee, Gillard, asking to speak with him about a “complaint.”  Gillard never responded.  Two months later, Okoli emailed Gillard with a “high” importance flag, stating her desire to “file a harassment complaint against my supervisor, [ ] Stewart.”  Gillard suggested that she speak with an intake specialist.  One week later, Okoli sent a formal complaint to the Mayor stating that Steward “displayed unethical and unprofessional behavior, e.g., harassment, degrading and dehumanizing, yelling and demanding, disrespect, mocking and gossiping about other colleagues.”  The email was promptly forwarded to Stewart who then fired Okoli later that afternoon.

Do Not Have To Mention Sexual Harassment

The trial court dismissed Okoli’s retaliation claim.  In doing so, the trial court adopted the City’s characterization of Okoli’s complaint against Stewart and ruled that Okoli’s complaint to the Mayor was not a sexual harassment complaint, but “simply a general complaint about Stewart’s unprofessional behavior.”  Thus, according to the trial court, because Okoli never complained about sexual harassment, Title VII did not protect her from retaliation.  On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision and reinstated Okoli’s retaliation claim.

In reversing the trial court, the Fourth Circuit rejected the City’s argument that Okoli’s complaint to the Mayor was not a sexual harassment complaint because she “did not explicitly mention sexual harassment.”  The appellate court found that the City “surely should have known that Okoli’s complaint of ‘harassment’ likely encompassed sexual harassment.”  The court of appeals reasoned that “Okoli’s description of ‘unethical,’ ‘degrading and dehumanizing’ conduct suggest severe misbehavior relating to her identity—not a mere workplace squabble.”  Moreover, the Fourth Circuit pointed out, “Stewart himself surely would have known that Okoli was complaining of sexual harassment.”

Free Consultation With Ocala Sexaul Harassment Lawyers

Based in Ocala, Florida and representing employees throughout Central Florida, we have been fighting for the rights of sexual harassment victims for nearly twenty years.  If you have been sexually harassed at work or have questions about making a sexual harassment complaint, please contact our office for a free consultation with our Marion County, Florida sexual harassment attorneys.  Our employment and labor law attorneys take sexual harassment cases on a contingency fee basis.  This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.

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