Thursday, April 28, 2022

4th Circuit Rules Constitution's Fifth Amendment Equal Protection Clause Protects Against Sexual Harassment

Court Revives Sexual Harassment Lawsuit Targeting Federal Judiciary

A federal appeals court on Tuesday revived a former public defender’s lawsuit challenging the federal judiciary’s handling of her sexual harassment and discrimination claims about a supervisor’s unwelcome attention at work.

 

The three-judge panel sided in part with Caryn D. Strickland, a former public defender in Charlotte, and said U.S. court leaders are not entirely shielded from being sued by judiciary employees. In its unanimous ruling, the panel recognized Strickland’s constitutional right — and that of all federal judiciary employees — to be free from sexual discrimination in the workplace.

 

The ruling comes as leaders of the federal judiciary have overhauled the court’s process for reporting misconduct, and as Congress is considering legislation to extend protections to the judiciary’s more than 30,000 employees who lack the same legal rights as other government and private-sector workers.

 

In a 118-page decision, the appeals court said Tuesdaythat judiciary employees in management roles can be held liable for “their deliberate indifference to sexual harassment committed by a federal judiciary employee or supervisor against another federal judiciary employee,” according to the opinion, written by Judge Mary Beck Briscoe of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

 

The panel said the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection clause “secures a federal judiciary employee’s right to be free from sexual harassment in the workplace. It thus both guards against sexual harassment perpetrated by other federal judiciary employees and protects federal judiciary employees from deliberate indifference on the part of federal judicial employees charged with preventing sexual harassment and investigating complaints of sexual harassment.

 

The decision is: Strickland v. United States (4th Circ. Apr. 26, 2022) (procedural due process and equal protection claims)

   C. Strickland’s equal protection claim

We next turn to the second claim for relief asserted in Strickland’s complaint, which alleges that defendants “violated the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which confers a right to be free from sex discrimination in federal employment.” ***

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, in pertinent part, that “[n]o person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of 77 law.” U.S. Const. Amend. V. “In numerous decisions,” the Supreme “Court has held that the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment forbids the Federal Government to deny equal protection of the laws.” Davis, 442 U.S. at 234 (internal quotation marks omitted). “To withstand scrutiny under the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, classifications by gender must serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to achievement of those objectives.” Id. at 234₋35 (internal quotation marks omitted). “The equal protection component of the Due Process Clause thus confers . . . a federal right to be free from gender discrimination which cannot meet these requirements.” Id. at 235.

In analyzing Strickland’s Fifth Amendment equal protection claim, the district court began by concluding that Strickland was “attempt[ing] to graft precedent interpreting Title VII onto the Fifth Amendment.” JA, Vol. IV at 1520. The district court in turn concluded that the Fourth Circuit would not recognize such a claim. Id. at 1521. In support, the district court stated that “the Fourth Circuit has not held that courts must apply Title VII standards to free-standing Fifth Amendment claims” and, “[t]o the contrary,” has “rejected a similar attempt to graft Title VII standards onto a free-standing Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim.” Id. at 1522 (emphasis in original) (citing Wilcox v. Lyons, 970 F.3d 452, 460 (4th Cir. 2020)). The district court concluded that “Strickland’s complaint is devoid of any allegation that women are treated differently than men under the EDR Plan,” and that “Strickland does not allege that the actions taken against her were on the basis of her sex.” Id. at 1523. “Instead,” the district court concluded, Strickland “theorizes that the [defendants] discriminated against her on the basis of sex when they mishandled 78 her sexual harassment complaints, ultimately leading to retaliation and constructive discharge.” Id.

We conclude that the district court misconstrued both the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Wilcox and, more importantly, Strickland’s equal protection claim. In Wilcox, the Fourth Circuit “conclude[d] that a pure retaliation claim is not cognizable under the Equal Protection Clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment. In doing so, the Fourth Circuit noted that neither it nor the Supreme Court “has recognized an equal protection right to be free from retaliation.” 970 F.3d at 458. Instead, the court noted that it “has consistently considered retaliation claims brought under Section 1983 to be more properly characterized as claims asserting a violation of the First Amendment.” Id.

The court explained that “[r]etaliation for reporting alleged sex discrimination imposes negative consequences on an employee because of the employee’s report, not because of the employee’s sex.” Id. at 460. “The very premise of a retaliation claim,” the court noted, “is that the employer has subjected an employee to adverse consequences in response to her complaint of discrimination.” Id. Thus, the court noted, “[t]he necessary causal link is between the employee’s complaint and the adverse action, not between her sex and the adverse action.” Id. The court emphasized that “continued sexual harassment and adverse treatment of a female employee unlike the treatment accorded male employees remains actionable as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause even when the sex discrimination and harassment continue after, and partially in response to, the female employee’s report of prior discrimination and harassment.” Id. at 461 (emphasis added). But, the court noted, “[t]he employee’s claim in such a case is not a claim of pure 79 retaliation, but instead implicates the basic equal protection right to be free from sex discrimination that is not substantially related to important governmental objectives.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted; emphasis added). Although the court’s holdings were limited to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, we have no doubt, given the Supreme Court’s equivalent treatment of equal protection claims under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, that they should be extended to retaliation claims brought under the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. See Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636, 638 n.2 (1975) (noting that the Supreme Court’s “approach to Fifth Amendment equal protection claims has always been precisely the same as to equal protection claims under the Fourteenth Amendment.”).

***Thus, Strickland has not alleged a pure retaliation claim, but rather has alleged a violation of her right under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment to be free from sex discrimination.

We also agree with Strickland that, under Fourth Circuit law, her complaint adequately alleged that defendants were deliberately indifferent to her complaints of sexual harassment. The Fourth Circuit has held in the context of a § 1983 action that a school official can be liable under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for his or her deliberate indifference to student-on-student sexual harassment. Feminist Majority Found. v. Hurley, 911 F.3d 674, 701–02 (4th Cir. 2018).***

Because the Supreme Court’s “approach to Fifth Amendment equal protection claims has always been precisely the same as to equal protection claims under the Fourteenth Amendment,” Weinberger, 420 U.S. at 638 n.2, we conclude that the principles outlined by the Fourth Circuit in Feminist Majority Foundation apply equally to the circumstances alleged by Strickland in this case. More specifically, federal judiciary employees who occupy supervisory roles and/or who are charged with enforcing an EDR plan can, under Feminist Majority Foundation, be held liable under the Fifth Amendment 82 for their deliberate indifference to sexual harassment committed by a federal judiciary employee or supervisor against another federal judiciary employee. This conclusion is based on the principle that the Fifth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause secures a federal judiciary employee’s right to be free from sexual harassment in the workplace. It thus both guards against sexual harassment perpetrated by other federal judiciary employees and protects federal judiciary employees from deliberate indifference on the part of federal judicial employees charged with preventing sexual harassment and investigating complaints of sexual harassment.

The elements of such a claim, we conclude, are essentially identical to those outlined by the Fourth Circuit in Feminist Majority Foundation: (1) the plaintiff was subjected to sexual harassment by another employee or supervisor; (2) the plaintiff alerted supervisory officials and/or officials responsible for overseeing the court’s EDR plan about the sexual harassment; (3) the supervisory officials and/or officials responsible for overseeing the court’s EDR plan responded to the allegations with deliberate indifference; and (4) the deliberate indifference was motivated by a discriminatory intent.***

Thus, in sum, we conclude that Strickland’s complaint adequately alleged that defendants violated her equal protection rights under the Fifth Amendment and that the district court erred in concluding otherwise.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/gender_law/2022/04/4th-circuit-rules-there-is-a-constitutional-right-to-be-free-from-sexual-harassment.html

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