The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Ray v. International Paper Company, released on November 28, 2018, overturned a lower federal court’s decision to dismiss Tamika Ray’s sexual harassment, hostile work environment, and retaliation claims against her employer, International Paper Company, for lack of sufficient evidence to support her claims. The FourthCircuit found Ms. Ray had presented sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment and to allow a jury to decide her claims.

Tamika Ray worked as a “bundler’ and then promoted to the position of “operator” at International Paper Company, which manufactures and distributes packaging boxes. Johnnie McDowell was Ms. Ray’s supervisor in both positions. One year after Ms. Ray began working, Mr. McDowell started asking Ms. Ray to engage in sexual activity and offered her money in exchange for those sexual acts, in addition to making several overtly sexual comments to her. On one occasion, he grabbed her thigh while the two were alone in his office. Several years after the conduct began, Ms. Ray reported it to two other supervisors, but asked that they not report to higher authorities for fear of retaliation. When Mr. McDowell found out that Ms. Ray had complained about his conduct, he informed Ms. Ray that she could no longer perform voluntary overtime work before the beginning of her shifts, for which she would get paid time and half. This voluntary overtime work represented a significant portion of her income.

When a supervisor, such as Johnnie McDowell, is the harasser and the harassment culminates in a “tangible employment action,” an employer like International Paper Company is strictly liable. Tamika Ray had to show that action taken against her was “tangible,” by demonstrating

that any action taken against her was ‘tangible,’ such that the action constituted a ‘significant change in employment status,’ and that there was ‘some nexus’ between the harassment and the tangible action taken.”

The Fourth Circuit held that the opportunity to work voluntary overtime that was taken away from her could constitute a tangible employment action. The Court also recognized that Mr. McDowell was responsible for the decision to eliminate Ms. Ray’s voluntary overtime work, creating a sufficient nexus between the ongoing harassment and the decision to deny voluntary overtime work. The Seventh Circuit overturned the lower court’s decision, which had dismissed Ms. Ray’s claim because of lack of sufficient evidence that the harassment culminated in a tangible employment action.

As to Ms. Ray’s retaliation claim, the Fourth Circuit also held that she had sufficient evidence to show that she suffered an adverse employment action after having reported the harassment to other supervisors, and that a jury reasonably could determine that Mr. McDowell retaliated against Ms. Ray after learning she had complained about him to other supervisors. Thus, there was enough evidence for a jury to reasonably find that International Paper Company was strictly liable for Mr. McDowell’s acts.

If you have been the victim of workplace sexual harassment perpetrated by a supervisor, and have experienced retaliation for reporting the misconduct, you should discuss your story with an attorney who can advise you of your legal rights. Please let us know if we can help.

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