Appeals Court Revives Sex-Harassment Suit Against La. School District

By Mark Walsh — July 20, 2016 3 min read
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A federal appeals court has revived the sexual-harassment lawsuit filed against a Louisiana school district by a former central office employee who alleges her supervisor engaged in verbal harassment and other inappropriate behavior.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, said there was a genuine factual dispute over whether the Caddo Parish school district was entitled to immunity from the employee’s suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Thus, the court said, the district was not entitled to summary judgment on key parts of the suit by Kandice Pullen, who was a clerical worker in the district’s purchasing and classified-personnel departments in the early 2010s.

Pullen alleges that Timothy Graham, her supervisor in the purchasing department, engaged in verbal sexual harassment, once touched her thigh and put his arm around her, and called her into his office and showed her inappropriate pictures on a computer. Even when she transferred to the classified-personnel department, the purchasing supervisor would visit her there and make inappropriate comments, Pullen’s suit alleges.

After another female central office employee made similar sexual harassment allegations against Graham, the Caddo Parish district conducted an internal investigation. The inquiry concluded that Graham did not engage in sexual harassment, but that his conduct nonetheless was unprofessional and inappropriate.

Meanwhile, Pullen filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and won approval to sue the district under Title VII. (After initially suing Graham as well, Pullen later removed him as a defendant.)

A federal district court granted summary judgment to the 41,000-student school district. But in its July 20 opinion in Pullen v. Caddo Parish School Board, the 5th Circuit court restored her claims that relate to when she worked under Graham’s supervision in the purchasing department, while upholding the grant of summary judgment to the school district for the alleged harassment when she worked in the classified-personnel department.

The appeals court explained that under U.S. Supreme Court precedents, an employer is normally strictly liable for a supervisor’s harassment of a worker whom he or she supervises. But employers can establish an affirmative defense if it shows it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct sexual harassment, and it must show that that employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of available preventive or remedial opportunities.

The 5th Circuit court said the key issue at this stage of Pullen’s case was whether the school district had taken care to prevent sexual harassment by putting forth a policy and complaint mechanism.

“A review of the summary-judgment evidence reveals that the district court erred in holding that the [school district’s] efforts to prevent sexual harassment were reasonable as a matter of law,” says the opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Jerry E. Smith.

“Pullen produced evidence that, if believed, would show that employees at the central office were not trained on sexual harassment, were not informed of the existence of a policy, were not shown where to find it, and were not told whom to contact regarding sexual harassment,” Smith wrote. “This would be a sufficient basis for a reasonable jury to find that the company did not take reasonable steps to prevent and remedy sexual harassment.”

The court noted evidence presented by Pullen that one employee who had worked in the Caddo Parish district’s central office for more than 30 years testified that she had never received any information or training on sexual harassment. And Pullen herself testified that she had never received training on the policy or been made aware that it was available online.

The school district argued that it had a detailed policy prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace, that it was posted conspicuously on bulletin boards throughout the central office, and that many employees did receive training about it.

“The [district’s] presentation is insufficient to satisfy its burden to show that there is no genuine dispute of material fact as to its entitlement to” summary judgment, the appeals court said.

The court upheld summary judgment for the alleged harassment by Graham while Pullen worked in a different department. It said that was subject to a standard of coworker harassment, which did not impose strict liability on an employer as supervisor harassment does.

The 5th Circuit court sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.