Corrections Officer Loses Case When She Fails To Follow Procedure For Reporting Sexual Harassment Claims

Linda Roebuck sued her employer, the District of Columbia Department of Corrections, alleging that she was the victim of sexual harassment perpetrated by her supervisor, Larry Corbett. When the jury found the Department not liable for Corbett’s conduct, Roebuck appealed.

Many sexual harassment cases today are covered by the standards in two Supreme Court decisions, Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998) and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998). One of the elements of the so-called Faragher-Ellerth defense is that an employer can escape liability for harassment perpetrated by one of its employees if the victim of the harassment unreasonably fails to take advantage of the ability to complain under the employer’s sexual harassment policy.

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals found that the jury was entitled to conclude that Roebuck had failed to timely file a complaint under the Department’s sexual harassment policy about Corbett’s conduct, and that the District was entitled to the Faragher/Ellerth defense.

The evidence showed that Corbett resumed a pattern of sexual harassment directed towards Roebuck in October 1997. However, Roebuck did not complain through the Department’s sexual harassment policy until late January 1998. Roebuck argued that she delayed in reporting Corbett’s sexual harassment in part because she was afraid of reprisal in part because she was unsure whether the harassment, some of which occurred outside of the workplace, was covered by the Department’s anti-harassment policy.

The Appeals Court found that “where the fear and uncertainty made Roebuck’s delay in complaining reasonable was for the jury to decide. As the Department points out, the jury heard testimony that Roebuck had filed as many as ten sexual harassment complaints between 1986 and 1995. Surely that could have led a reasonable jury to discount Roebuck’s explanation for delaying. A reasonable jury certainly could have found in Roebuck’s favor, but we cannot say that the same jury could not find that Roebuck unreasonably delayed in reporting Corbett’s harassment.”

Without regard to timeliness of Roebuck’s complaints, the Court also found that Roebuck failed to prove one of the essential elements of most sexual harassment claims – that she suffered a tangible job loss. The Court found the fact that Corbett changed the locks in his office and proposed swapping her duties with that of another administrative assistant had no impact on her employment status, her wages, or her benefits, and thus could not amount to a tangible job loss.

Roebuck v. Washington, 2005 WL 1214245 (D.C.Cir. 2005).

This article appears in the July 2005 issue