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Jury to decide Title VII claims by TV station employee fired after refusing to marry CEO

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

Denying a TV station’s motion for summary judgment on a Title VII hostile work environment claim by a former employee, the court found sufficient evidence that the alleged harassment she experienced at the hands of a board member (who was the mother of the CEO) was based on her gender, including demands that the employee marry the CEO and public reprimands when she refused. The employee’s retaliation claim based on her termination shortly after she complained to human resources also survived (Allen v. TV One, LLC, October 4, 2017, Chasanow, D.).

Marry my son. The employee was the director of talent relations at a TV station. Among other duties, she booked talent for “TV One-on-One,” a show hosted by the station’s founder, who was also a board member and the CEO’s mother. The CEO’s mom allegedly subjected the employee to ongoing harassment by trying to get her to marry the CEO. She referred to the employee as her “future daughter-in-law,” fueling rumors, and on a business trip said “I’m going to be your mother one way or another. Either you will marry [the CEO] or I will marry your father and be your stepmother.” At one point, she sternly asked why the employee was not yet married to the CEO and later said the employee was “old and that her babies would likely be ‘retarded.’”

Personal attacks. Once the CEO’s mother realized the employee would not marry her son, she allegedly began baselessly attacking the employee’s job performance, publicly berating her, and starting false rumors. The rumor mill also spread tales that the employee was having sex with the CEO. She complained to the CEO, who responded “[A]t least the rumor makes me look good” but otherwise did nothing. In 2011, the COO warned the employee that the CEO’s mom was “strategizing” to get her fired. Due to the foregoing, the employee sought therapy for depression.

Termination. In June 2014, the CEO’s mother became angry when her personal friend’s request for a particular music group to perform on a certain stage was denied by the employee due to a conflict with a prior agreement. The parties disputed who yelled at whom, but both the employee and the CEO’s mother claimed the other one was abusive on the phone. The CEO’s mother told the senior VP of human resources she wanted the employee “out.” The employee was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. She complained to supervisors, the legal department, and to human resources, but her efforts were in vain and she was fired.

Lawsuit. The employee filed suit under Title VII alleging a sex-based hostile work environment and retaliation. In prior proceedings, the court denied the station’s motion to dismiss, finding that the employee’s claims were plausible. The court also denied the employer’s motion to quash the employee’s subpoena to depose the station’s former in-house counsel, to whom the employee complained of harassment. The employer moved for summary judgment.

Continuing violations. Rejecting the employer’s challenge under the statute of limitations, the court found that the continuing violations doctrine might apply to save allegations involving conduct outside the limitations period. Specifically, the employee claimed those earlier actions continued throughout the tenure of her employment with TV One, culminating in the CEO’s false statements to a gathering of employees that she had been in his hotel room in January 2014 and then her termination after a dispute with the CEO’s mother the following June.

Based on gender. Also rejected was the employer’s assertion that the hostile work environment claim failed because the employee could not show the alleged harassment was based on her gender. The court explained that she did not have to show “sexual advances or propositions” to show that “but for” her gender she would not have been subject to discrimination. Here, the employee testified that she was persistently pressured by a board member to marry the CEO; that she was humiliated by the CEO’s false statement of her presence in his hotel room; and that she was subject to rumors that they were romantically involved. The employer’s former in-house counsel also testified that she heard the rumors, which supported the employee’s claim. Based on this, a reasonable jury could find that, “but for her status as a woman,” the employee would not have been subjected to the offensive conduct by the CEO and his mother.

Severe and pervasive. The employee also presented evidence that the offensive conduct was pervasive. There was evidence the CEO’s mother made ongoing declarations, in front of the employee’s superiors and subordinates, that she wanted the employee to marry the CEO. Indeed, colleagues “openly discussed the rumors” that the two were romantically involved. When it became clear she would not marry the CEO, the employee was allegedly subjected to continuous harassment, including the CEO’s mother publicly berating her. There was sufficient evidence that the harassment was severe, considering that both the CEO and his mother had significant authority over the employee and the conduct was so degrading and humiliating that she sought therapy to cope with depression. For these reasons, summary judgment was not warranted on the sex-based hostile work environment claim.

Faragher/Ellerth defense questionable. The employer argued that it could not be liable for any harassment because it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct harassment and the employee failed to take advantage of such opportunities. Denying summary judgment on the Faragher/Ellerth defense, the court explained that it is not available if a supervisor’s harassment culminates in an adverse action. Here, the termination was an adverse action, and there was a genuine dispute on whether there was a connection between that and the alleged harassment. While the employer had evidence that the termination decision was made on June 24, 2014, after the employee was “belligerent” and “insubordinate” to the CEO’s mother, the employee had evidence that on June 23, before any investigation into the incident, the CEO’s mother told the Senior VP of human resources to fire her.

Retaliation. Also denying summary judgment on the retaliation claim, the court rejected the employer’s argument that the “refusal of a suggestion of marriage” is not a protected activity. To the court, there was enough evidence of prior gender-based harassment to support the employee’s subjectively and objectively reasonable belief that she was being subjected to unlawful conduct, such that she engaged in a protected activity when she left a voice message on June 23, reporting to the VP of human resources that she was being harassed by the CEO’s mother because she would not marry him. She also submitted a complaint by email to the employer’s in-house counsel. The employee also presented evidence of a causal connection to her termination, including the very short temporal proximity. There was also a triable issue on pretext given the timing and evidence that the CEO’s mother demanded that the employee be fired before the employer claimed to have made the termination decision.