Elitharp-Martin v. Pulaski County School Board, Case 7:14-cv-231 (W.D.Va. Oct. 16, 2014). In this case, the federal district court in Roanoke dismissed part of the plaintiff’s lawsuit for sexual harassment because the plaintiff’s EEOC charge had been filed too late.
The plaintiff in this case, Ms. Elitharp-Martin, was a white female who worked for Pulaski County Schools as the Director of Special Education. In her lawsuit, Ms. Elitharp-Martin alleged that a member of the School Board, who was an African American male, began to sexually harass her starting in March of 2009. According to the complaint, the school board member repeatedly had asked her for sex, told her that she needed medication to make her more attracted to him, told her that he only wanted to sleep with white women, and suggested a trip to Richmond to have sex. On one occasion, the school board member ran his hand up the plaintiff’s dress. On another, he told her she had a lot to lose and would never become superintendent of the county unless she consented to have sex with him. Elitharp-Martin rejected these sexual advances. On January 1, 2012, her harasser left the school board, but as a parent of a student with special education needs he continued to have contact with the plaintiff and continued to harass her. This harassment continued until the harasser’s child graduated from high school in May 2013. On June 17, 2013, Elitharp-Martin filed her EEOC charge.
Elitharp-Martin alleged in her lawsuit that she had repeatedly complained about the harassment to school officials, including school board members, the human resources director, and the superintendent. In her lawsuit, the plaintiff claimed that she had not been promoted to assistant superintendent or superintendent in March 2010 and August 2012, even though she was well qualified for these positions. She claimed she was denied these promotions because in 2010 the harasser, angry about her rejection of his sexual advances, refused to vote to promote her. In 2012, she alleged, her harasser made false and defamatory statements about her to the school board which in turn caused the board not to promote her.
Elitharp-Martin filed suit for sexual harassment. The court noted that the law recognizes two forms of sexual harassment: quid pro quo claims and hostile work environment claims. (Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase meaning “something for something.”) In cases of quid pro quo harassment the employee’s reaction to the sexual advances – acceptance or rejection – affects some tangible aspect of her employment. In Elitharp-Martin’s case, for example, the fact that she rejected the school board member’s sexual advances ultimately became the reason why she was not selected for promotion, either to assistant superintendent or superintendent. Hostile environment claims, however, are different in nature and are based on a different type of circumstances. Hostile environment claims arise where the employee experiences harassment that is so severe and pervasive that it alters her work environment generally. The distinctions between quid pro quo hand hostile environment harassment cases are not rigid, and there is often some overlap between them, but generally speaking, quid pro quo involves a demand for sex and hostile environment involves conduct of a sexual nature. Ms. Elitharp-Martin’s allegations made out claims under both arguments.
The school board moved to dismiss both claims, on various grounds. First, the school board argued that Elitharp-Martin’s quid pro quo claim was made too late. In Virginia, a plaintiff must file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC within 300 days of the time she learns of the discriminatory employment decision. Elitharp-Martin alleged that in March of 2010 her harasser had voted against her as a member of the school board. However, Elitharp-Martin waited until June 17, 2013 to file her EEOC charge – more than three years after the March 2010 decision of the school board. The second incident where the school board did not promote her occurred on August 8, 2012 – which was also more than 300 days before she filed her EEOC charge. The court concluded that her EEOC charge with regard to her quid pro quo claims was late.
A late-filed charge may sometimes be excused under a doctrine referred to as “equitable tolling.” Under this doctrine, the period for filing a charge with the EEOC can be tolled or extended in cases where exceptional circumstances outside the plaintiff’s control prevent her from filing a timely charge. Mental incapacity or disability can be such a circumstance. Ms. Elitharp-Martin tried to invoke the doctrine by arguing that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of sexual abuse she had endured during her childhood. The court, however, refused to apply equitable tolling in this case since Elitharp-Martin had alleged that she had been working in a high-level position as the Director of Special Education and that she was well qualified for promotion to the position of assistant superintendent or superintendent. The court was convinced that Elitharp-Martin was capable of understanding and maintaining her affairs generally and thus declined to toll the 300 day deadline. Because she had filed her charge late, her quid pro quo claims were dismissed.
Elitharp-Martin fared better with her hostile environment claim: the school board’s motion to dismiss this claim was denied. In the hostile environment claim, Ms. Elitharp-Martin had alleged that the sexual harassment continued until May of 2013; her EEOC charge filed one month later was therefore clearly timely. The school board had made several other arguments that the hostile environment claim should be dismissed, but the court rejected those arguments as well.
The court permitted Elitharp-Martin to go forward on her hostile environment claim. Nonetheless, the school board’s victory is significant: under her quid pro quo claim, Ms. Elitharp-Martin could have recovered money for emotional damages, as well as the current (and perhaps future) difference between her current salary and the salary of the superintendent position that she was denied. Under the surviving hostile environment claim, Ms. Elitharp-Martin will probably only have a claim for emotional damages.
As with most claims that arise under employment laws, claims of sexual harassment must be made very quickly — 300 days in this case — or they will be lost forever. Ms. Elitharp-Martin’s case shows the importance of acting quickly and the significant penalties that result when an employee sits on her rights for too long.