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The Fifth Circuit's March 28 decision in Monica Hague v. University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio underscores some of the basics of sexual harassment cases and shows one major pitfall to avoid.
Monica Hague worked on a contract basis as a nurse for the University of Texas Health Science Center. She claimed (among other things) that she was sexually harassed when a Dr. Manifold read a sexually explicit article aloud during a meeting and gave another employee a sexually explicit doll.
Hague followed internal procedures to address the behavior and eventually filed an EEOC complaint. Three days later, she was informed that her contract would not be renewed. She sued, alleging sexual harassment, sexual discrimination, and retaliation. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of her employer. The Fifth Circuit affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded in an opinion that reads reminds us of the basics of sexual harassment law.
Was It Quid Pro Quo Harassment?
Hague claimed that since she was fired after making the EEOC claim, Manifold's conduct toward her amounted to quid pro quo sexual harassment. This argument was rejected on two grounds.
First, quid pro quo sexual harassment can only be proven where the harasser has the power to take tangible employment actions against the victim; Manifold did not have such power.
Second, quid pro quo sexual harassment is defined as occurring when "the grant or denial of employment advancement, such as a promotion or raise, depends upon whether an employee acquiesces to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature." The conduct described did not meet that definition.
Was It a Hostile Work Environment?
Since the court rejected the quid pro quo argument, it could only analyze the behavior as possibly creating a hostile work environment.
The Fifth Circuit ruled that since there were only two incidents (the explicit article and the doll), and neither was extremely serious, they did not evince pervasive hostility toward the plaintiff as a matter of law, and rejected this argument as well.
How Carefully Does a Plaintiff Need to Fill Out Her EEOC Forms?
Very. Hague alleged sexual discrimination in her lawsuit, but did not allege it in her EEOC intake form. Because of that oversight, she had not exhausted her administrative remedies on that claim and therefore could not sue on it. This is where Hague could have used a good lawyer.
The Fifth Circuit did, at least, agree that Hague might have been the subject of a retaliatory firing after filing the EEOC claim. It therefore vacated the lower court's decision on that issue and remanded the case for further proceedings.