Fed Workers Advised to Speak Up about Harassment

October 26, 2009 (PLANSPONSOR.com - Federal employees who believe they have been sexually harassed need to report their complaints to the designated agency authority as soon as possible or risk the behavior later being interpreted as accepting the alleged harassment.

That was the bottom line of an analysis of a recent federal appellate court ruling, according to an article on the Fedsmith.com Web site by attorney Debra A. D’Agostino of the Washington, D.C. firm of Tully Rinckey PLLC. The analysis concerned the decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in the suit by plaintiff Ruby Taylor against the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).  

According to D’Agostino, Taylor alleged that her PBGC supervisors had sexually harassed her and then retaliated against her when she complained.

The case history, as recounted by D’Agostino, involved complaints from Taylor that   her two supervisors created a sexually charged environment beginning in the summer of 2001. The harassment included inappropriate comments, intimidating comments if she decided to complain, and comments suggesting that Taylor would “owe” her supervisors if they gave her a positive performance evaluation.

After a period of time, Taylor confided in a team leader, who was also her friend, that she felt harassed; he did not advise her to go to the EEO Counselor, nor did he go himself, according to the summary.

In April 2002, almost a year after the harassment began, Taylor officially reported the conduct by filing a complaint with the PBGC’s internal investigator, who did not find a violation of the Corporation’s policy. She then filed a complaint with the EEO Office, D’Agostino wrote.

Ruling for the Agency

After filing the suit that alleged violations of federal anti-discrimination laws, a federal trial judge ruled for the agency. The lower court said a person in Taylor’s circumstances would have been expected to file an official agency complaint the year before she actually came forward.

“A reasonable employee who believes and tells others she is being sexually harassed would report it if she knows — as Taylor should have and apparently did know — a complaint procedure has been established for that purpose,” wrote Circuit Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg for the appellate court.

Taylor, however, contended in court that her notifying her team leader constituted official agency notification – an assertion rejected by both the lower court and the appellate panel.

The appellate panel’s decision in the Taylor case is available here .