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Mass. federal court rules in favor of worker in sexual harassment and retaliation case

Yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts held that a reasonable jury could find that Palmer Fire District Number One, Palmer Water District Number One, and two public officials (collectively “Palmer Fire and Water”) subjected former employee Lisa Koss to a sexually hostile work environment and then retaliated against her when she complained about the sexual harassment she experienced.

Koss alleges that her former supervisor, William Cole, sexually harassed her.  Among other things, he allegedly leered and stared at her in a sexual manner while making comments such as “I wish I had somebody like you at home…baby I could make your head spin.”  He allegedly made other crude sexual comments to her as well, such as when Koss was eating a banana Cole said, with a smirk on his face, “I’ve never seen anybody eat a banana like you before.”  On another occasion, Cole allegedly grabbed Koss’s shirt and tried to look down it to see if she was wearing a bra.  Other instances of sexual harassment occurred in the workplace as well between 2008 and August 2012, when Koss stopped working for Palmer Fire and Water.

Koss complained to Palmer Fire and Water management about Cole’s sexual harassment and she alleges that management retaliated against her because of her complaint.  After Koss filed her sexual harassment complaint, her hours were cut by more than half and she was later fired.

Palmer Fire and Water filed a motion for summary judgment in which it argued that no reasonable jury could find that it was liable for the sexual harassment and retaliation Koss allegedly experienced.  The court denied Palmer Fire and Water’s motion.  It held that a reasonably jury could find that Palmer Fire and Water subjected Koss to a sexually hostile work environment because of the severity and pervasiveness of Cole’s sexual harassment.  The court also held that a jury could reasonably find that Palmer Fire and Water cut Koss’s hours and fired her in retaliation for her filing the sexual harassment complaint against Cole.

Palmer Fire and Water argued to the court that it did not retaliate against Koss but, rather, cut Koss’s hours because of budgetary problems and fired her because she engaged in misconduct.  The court held that the fact that Palmer Fire and Water cut Koss’s hours the day after she met with its attorney during the investigation of her sexual harassment complaint could lead a reasonable jury to conclude that it cut her hours and fired her in retaliation for her complaint.

The court emphasized that a jury should decide whether Palmer Fire and Water cut Koss’s hours and fired her in retaliation for her complaint or, as Palmer Fire and Water claimed, for legitimate reasons.  It reasoned that “[b]ecause of the availability of seemingly neutral rationales under which an employer can hide its discriminatory intent, and because of the difficulty of accurately determining whether an employer’s purported motive is legitimate, there is reason to be concerned about the possibility that an employer could disguise its impermissibly-motivated adverse employment action under a veil of permissible cause.”

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