By Lorene D. Park, J.D.
A TV station employee who was publicly berated, humiliated, and fired after refusing the ongoing attempts by one of her supervisors, who was also the CEO’s mother, to convince the employee to engage in a romantic relationship with the CEO and marry him, plausibly alleged sex discrimination through a hostile work environment, ruled a federal district court in Maryland. Her Title VII retaliation claim could also proceed, particularly considering she was fired only three days after complaining to HR (Allen v. TV One, LLC
, January 28, 2016, Chasanow, D.).
“I’m going to be your mother.”
The employee was the director of talent relations and casting 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 the CEO’s mother. According to the employee, the CEO’s mom subjected her to sex discrimination and harassment by repeatedly trying to get her to start a romance with the CEO. On a business trip, the mom 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.” A while later, the CEO’s mom sternly asked why the employee was not yet married to the CEO and thereafter said the employee was “old and that her babies would likely be ‘retarded.’”
Personal attacks, rumors.
Once the CEO’s mother realized the employee was not going to marry her son, she allegedly began to baselessly attack the employee’s job performance. She publicly berated the employee; started false rumors; and demanded the employee’s termination. Meanwhile, the workplace rumor mill spread tales that the employee was only hired because she was having sex with the CEO, and that she was still romantically involved with him. She complained directly to the CEO, who responded “[A]t least the rumor makes me look good” but otherwise did nothing. The rumors intensified when the CEO’s mom publicly declared on multiple occasions that she wanted the employee and her son to marry.
Eventually, the employee’s advancement opportunities at the station dried up despite her “stellar work performance and proven success.” By July 2011, the COO warned her that the CEO’s mom was “strategizing” to get her fired. And due to the mom’s “mercurial, volatile, disruptive and abusive behavior,” the employee began to seek therapy to cope with stress and anxiety. The employee complained repeatedly to supervisors, the legal department, and to HR, and asked to relocate to Los Angeles, but her efforts were in vain. She was fired in June 2014, after a dispute with the CEO’s mother when she refused to ignore protocol and grant a request to move a music performance to a different stage during a festival.
Rejecting the employer’s procedural challenge to the employee’s Title VII sex discrimination and retaliation claims, the court noted that Maryland is a “deferral state” under Title VII, so the employee had a 300-day window after an alleged unlawful action to file an administrative charge. While her complaint had allegations of harassment occurring outside that period, she also alleged unlawful conduct occurring within the 300-day window, and the continuing violations doctrine applied so that earlier violations were actionable.
The court also found that the employee sufficiently stated her hostile work environment claim. Though the employer argued that she failed to show the alleged harassment was based on her gender, she did not have to show “sexual advances or propositions.” It was sufficient that she claimed that the CEO’s mother persistently urged her to marry the CEO; that she was humiliated, publicly chastised, and berated by supervisors; and that she was subject to workplace rumors, because she resisted a romantic relationship with the CEO. Put simply, “but for her status as a woman,” she would not have been subjected to the alleged harassment.
Moreover, the employee plausibly claimed the harassment was severe and pervasive. She alleged 10 specific incidents of unwanted conduct, and ongoing declarations by the CEO’s mother, 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 employee was romantically involved with him. Moreover, the employee sufficiently alleged that the harassment was severe, considering that both the CEO and his mother had significant authority over her and the conduct was degrading and humiliating to the point where the employee sought therapy to cope with it.
Also refusing to dismiss the employee’s retaliation claim, the court rejected the employer’s arguments that she failed to allege that she engaged in a protected activity or that there was a causal link to some adverse employment action. To the contrary, the employee made oral and written complaints to the HR department in June 2014 concerning persistent harassment by one of her supervisors, who was also the CEO’s mother. She also made several complaints to another supervisor. That was enough to plead protected activity. Furthermore, she plausibly alleged that she was fired in June 2014 because of her protected activity—causation could be inferred from the very short temporal proximity (she was fired three days after her complaints).