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Did supervisor call police on subordinate because he feared for his safety—or because she complained of harassment?

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

A jury will decide if a male supervisor known for being aggressive toward women filed a police report against a female subordinate in retaliation for her harassment complaints and threats to get him fired, or if he and two other managers sincerely feared for the physical safety of themselves and the staff (though her union rep supported her assertion that she threatened legal action, not physical harm). Though a federal court in Connecticut granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to several of the employee’s claims, she advanced to trial on her claims of gender discrimination, retaliation, and both intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress (DeAngelis v. City of Bridgeport, September 5, 2017).

Hostile to women. The employee worked in a city’s emergency call city, where she answered and helped respond to calls. She claimed that her male supervisor was extremely aggressive toward females, routinely yelling at them while following them around the office and outside. He also disciplined them more severely than men and overly scrutinized their break time.

Multiple complaints. In March 2013, the supervisor scolded her about her “tone,” stating that “the only time you should answer me like that is when I am grabbing you by the neck and shaking you.” In April, he yelled at her after she had muttered, “this is f**king ridiculous.” The next day, he berated her after she had signed out on a break sheet. At this point she filed a grievance, describing his behavior as “intimidation,” “professional bullying,” and “threatening.”

On July 26, she was called into a hearing concerning her “cursing” incident, at which time she raised the supervisor’s aggressive behavior. The director gave her a five-day suspension later that day, and subsequently accused her of intimidating behavior. She then contacted the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO). During another yelling incident on September 16, she told the supervisor “back the f*ck off” and threatened to get him fired for “harassing and chasing” her. Later that day, she filed another union grievance regarding his harassment. A few days later, she also complained to a training officer, who issued her a warning regarding attendance.

Police report. On November 15, the employee was called into a meeting and disciplined for a cursing incident that allegedly occurred on November 9. She complained about the “witch hunt” and again threatened to get the supervisor fired. That evening, he reported to the police that she physically threatened him, which the director and the training officer corroborated. The next day, the police told the employee that the director had insisted on having her arrested. She was issued a summons to her for disorderly conduct and placed on paid administrative leave.

When interviewed by the city investigator days later, she reported a “commonplace joke” that the supervisor might “shoot the building up like the Navy Yard in Washington.” At his interview, the union rep referred to the police visit as “intimidation,” stated that cursing frequently occurred at work, and opined that it was “harassment” to go after the employee. He also corroborated that she had threatened legal action, not bodily harm. When the employee was advised to return to work, she stated that she would only do so if the charges against her were dropped, the matter was expunged from her files, her legal expenses were reimbursed, and her safety was guaranteed. In response, she was told that failure to return would be a violation of her contract and could result in termination. When she remained absent, she was notified that her unauthorized absence had been considered a resignation. She filed a union grievance and subsequently filed the instant action.

Gender-based HWE. There was ample evidence that the employee suffered a hostile working environment—she described a workplace where supervisors screamed at and physically intimidated employees and accused them of insubordination if they questioned a supervisor’s actions. And though not overtly gender-based, the record indicated that the hostile actions were done either primarily to or only to women, allowing a jury to plausibly infer that they were due to sexism.

Protected Title VII activity. She also engaged in protected activity. Her September grievance stated that she was complaining about “harassment and discrimination” and that she had scheduled a meeting with the CHRO—which investigated claims of gender bias. And when she met with the city investigator and complained about her superiors’ conduct, she stated that “this has happened to women like me with a similar profile, before I was employed there.”

Moreover, the events triggering her suspension began at the November 15 meeting regarding her alleged cursing, yet the record suggested that cursing in her office was rampant, thus allowing an inference of pretext. Moreover, if a jury believed her assertion that she merely threatened to try to have him fired (and didn’t physically threaten him), it could find that he manufactured his story to the police in retaliation for her complaints. And while paid leave may not have been a sufficiently adverse action, she also claimed that management manufactured a false police statement, insisted that she be arrested, and then used that arrest as an excuse to place her on administrative leave and investigate her.

Emotional distress claims. The employee’s negligent infliction of emotional distress claim also advanced since a reasonable jury could conclude that a person falsely accused of conduct sufficient to result in criminal charges could foreseeably suffer severe emotional distress, especially when the accusations are made by coworkers who verbally abused the person they falsely accused. Since a jury could also find that the alleged pattern of intense harassment which culminated in the false police report was extreme or outrageous, her intentional infliction of emotional distress claim also proceeded.