Court Allows Title VII Claim of Hostile Work Environment Where Sexual Relationship with Supervisor

by Joseph C. Maya on Feb. 21, 2024


Summary: In a Federal District Court case, the Court held that an employee engaged in a sexual relationship with her supervisor, of which other managers had knowledge, could proceed with a claim for hostile work environment and constructive discharge against her employer.[1] The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought an action on behalf of three female former employees of a sports apparel retailer, alleging claims for sexual harassment by the store general manager, Fulton, and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The employer, Finish Line, moved for summary judgment to dismiss the claims.[2]

Case Background

Fulton was General Manager for the Cool Spring location of Finish Line.  As General Manager, thirty-eight-year-old Fulton, hired and fired all store employees, set weekly work schedules, disciplined employees and supervised all store employees.  In 2008 and 2009 Fulton hired two Assistant Managers who had a duty to report any allegations of sexual harassment or inappropriate conduct that violated Defendant’s policies.

Between December 2008 and March 2009, Fulton hired three minor females.  Within weeks of hiring the first employee, 16 year-old Roberts, Fulton began making unwelcome comments toward Roberts and initiating physical conduct.

The Allegations

Roberts alleged that while at work Fulton would rub her back, hug her multiple times in a day, and run his hand down her back to her buttocks.  Roberts found Fulton’s touching of her unwelcome for approximately a month, and initially stated her opposition to Fulton’s touching.[3] 

In April 2009, Roberts accepted an invitation to watch a movie at Fulton’s home and while there voluntarily engaged in intercourse with Fulton.  Fulton and Roberts began having sex on a weekly basis.[4]  Roberts continued to maintain her physical relationship with Fulton out of fear of being transferred to another store location.

In October Roberts’ parents learned about the relationship and reported the matter to the police who arrested Fulton and charged him with statutory rape.[5]  Roberts never returned to work at the Defendant’s store.  While the Assistant Managers of Finish Line were aware of “rumors” that Roberts and Fulton were engaged in a romantic relationship outside of work, neither reported this information as a violation of company policy.

Establishing a Prima Facie Case of Sexual Harassment

To establish a prima facie case of sexual harassment or a sexually hostile work environment under Title VII, the plaintiff must prove: (1) that she is a member of a protected class; (2) that she was subjected to unwelcome sexual harassment; (3) that the harassment was based on her sex; (4) that the harassment created a hostile work environment; and (5) that the employer failed to take reasonable care to prevent or correct any sexually harassing behavior.[6]  To be actionable, sexual harassment must be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the plaintiff’s employment.

The Court’s Decision

In finding that Fulton’s alleged touching by the minor employee could be unwelcome, the Court noted the sexual conduct took place in the employment setting, Fulton’s role as a supervisor, Roberts’ 16 year-old age, and the twenty two age difference between Roberts and her manager.[7]

Finish Line asserted that it could not be found liable because it satisfied the Ellerth’s requirements by exercising through its harassment policies reasonable care to prevent and correct sexually harassing behavior and Roberts did not report any alleged harassment.

The District Court stated with regard to supervisors in the workplace, “it is no longer enough for an employer to take corrective action; employers now have an affirmative duty to prevent sexual harassment by supervisors.”[8] The widespread “rumors” the assistant managers heard triggered their affirmative duty to take steps to prevent any harassment.

The Court concluded there is sufficient evidence the assistant managers had knowledge of unwelcome sexual harassment the managers had an affirmative duty to inform Finish Line of any alleged romantic relationship between Roberts, a minor, and Fulton about which they may have known.[9]  With these determinations made, the Court allowed the employees’ claims of hostile work environment and constructive discharge to proceed.

[1] E.E.O.C. v. Finish Line, Inc., 3:11-CV-00920, 2013 WL 139523 (M.D. Tenn. Jan. 10, 2013)

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Bowman v. Shawnee State Univ., 220 F.3d 456, 462–63 (6th Cir.2000)

[7] E.E.O.C. v. Finish Line, Inc.

[8] Williams v. Gen. Motors Corp., 187 F.3d 553, 561 (6th Cir.1999).

[9] E.E.O.C. v. Finish Line, Inc.

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