Labor & Employment Law Daily Male lifeguard, fired after anonymous sexual harassment accusation, can’t advance sex bias claim
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Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Male lifeguard, fired after anonymous sexual harassment accusation, can’t advance sex bias claim

By Matt Phifer, J.D.

While the court found it conceivable the YMCA fired the employee because he’s a man, critical flaws in his allegations made that claim implausible at best.

Dismissing the Title VII sex discrimination claim of a male YMCA lifeguard who was terminated after the YMCA received anonymous complaints of sexual harassment from one or more of the female lifeguards he supervised, a federal district in the District of Columbia found his allegations failed to “go beyond ‘an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed me accusation’” (Redmon v. YMCA of Metropolitan Washington, October 24, 2019, Nichols, C.).

As a supervisor, the employee counseled and disciplined other lifeguards, including issuing formal disciplinary reports. On at least one prior occasion, a female subordinate fabricated a sexual harassment claim against him in retaliation for his role in disciplining her, but he was later exonerated. In April 2018, he learned that an anonymous female lifeguard had accused him of sexual harassment. Although he claimed to have no knowledge of the incident and denied any misconduct, he was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation and terminated four days later without any further explanation.

Longstanding practice of sexual banter. Suing for sex discrimination in violation of Title VII, the employee argued that the purported incident of sexual harassment was merely one instance of a longstanding practice of sexual banter among colleagues, including female lifeguards. Although the YMCA had never disciplined anyone for such behavior, he contended, it suddenly singled him out, suspended him, and terminated him without investigation based on a single, unsubstantiated allegation. Because he was a man and the other lifeguards were women, the disparities in treatment, he asserted, must have been motivated by animus against men.

Critical flaws. While the court found it conceivable the YMCA fired him because he’s a man, critical flaws in his allegations make that claim “implausible at best.” Mostly importantly, said the court, in attempt to show he was treated differently than similarly situated colleagues, he argued that his situation was comparable to that of his female subordinates. But this argument ignored the fact that he was the sole supervisor.

Further, his attempt to group himself with his subordinates also ignored his history of sexual harassment complaints filed against him, even if an earlier complaint was discredited, the court observed, finding it “more accurate (and more plausible) to describe the situation as one in which the only employee who was terminated was the sole supervisor, who was also the only employee with a history of sexual harassment complaints.” Since there were no comparable supervisors with previous sexual harassment complaints against them, the lifeguard could not show he was treated less favorably than a person in a similar position.

No bias against men. As to his allegation that both male and female lifeguards participated in the sexual banter, the court pointed out that if other male employees also engaged in sexual banter at one time or another, and if the YMCA had some discriminatory bias against men, “one would expect other men to have suffered some adverse employment consequences.” That this did not happen was further reason to conclude that he did not sufficiently plead the YMCA terminated him because of some animus against men.

False accusation? Finally, the employee also claimed that female lifeguards may have made up false allegations against him as retaliation for a disciplinary report and that the YMCA failed to investigate this. But even if the YMCA did not look into the possibility of the allegation being false, this would not create a Title VII claim. “Indeed, even assuming the accusations against Redmon were concocted, the YMCA could still exercise its business judgment and refuse to expend funds to investigate the allegations or side with the subordinates if doing so would be better for morale (assuming, of course, that those judgments were not motivated by improper animus).”

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