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Court Revives Long-Running Sex-Bias Suit

By William Vogeler, Esq. on March 20, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A federal appeals court revived a Southern University professor's gender discrimination case, saying that she could allege a hostile work environment through continuous conduct going back two years before she filed her complaint.

The decision is significant because it clears up questions facing trial judges about the continuing violation doctrine in gender discrimination cases. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals said it applies to claims of hostile work environment, allowing the Louisiana plaintiff to allege discriminatory conduct more than 300 days, and beyond the one-year statute of limitations, before filing the complaint.

"Claims alleging discrete acts are not subject to the continuing violation doctrine; hostile workplace claims are," the court said in Heath v. Board of Supervisors for the Southern University and Agricultural and Mechanical College.

"Hostile environment claims are 'continuing' because they involve repeated conduct, so the 'unlawful employment practice' cannot be said to occur on any particular day," Judge Gregg Costa wrote for the unanimous panel.

Hostile Environment

Panagiota Heath worked as a math professor at Southern University's campus in New Orleans. When Mostafa Elaasar became her supervisor in 2003, she alleged, he began a pattern of demeaning and harassing behavior that continued through 2013 when she filed her federal lawsuit.

Heath had previously filed a lawsuit in state court, citing a culture "known to be dominating to women." She complained in particular about Elaasar who made disparaging remarks, including that "she talked too much for a woman." Heath later dropped the case and took a sabbatical due to job-related stresses and health problems.

After she returned to work in 2011, she alleged, Elaasar continued his contemptuous behavior toward her. He talked over her when she spoke in departmental meetings, isolated her from departmental business by meeting privately with other instructors and otherwise belittled her in the presence of colleagues and students.

More than 200 students signed a petition asking the university to do something about the "unprofessional," aggressive" and "harassing" environment, but the school did not respond. Heath then filed a federal complaint against the school and Elaasar alleging gender discrimination and retaliation.

Morgan Claims

A trial judge dismissed the complaint, concluding that she could only consider conduct with 300 days of the filing date. The appeals court reversed and remanded in part.

Citing National Railroad Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, the judges said that Elaasar's conduct back to 2011 could be considered as part of a continuing hostile work environment and not discrete acts. However, the appeals court affirmed the trial court's ruling on Heath's retaliation claim.

"Such a retaliation claim based on discrete acts cannot rely on a continuing violation theory," the court said.

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