U.S. Ninth Circuit - The FindLaw 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Sexual Harassment Claims Against Prison Co. Will Go Forward

A previously dismissed sexual harassment suit brought against a Florida-state correctional agency that contracts with the Department of Justice must be reinstated, said the Ninth Circuit. The case centers on the unprofessional and sexually explicit behaviors of male co-workers who were employees of Florida based Geo Group.

The Arizona Attorneys Office seemed happy by the Ninth Circuit's ruling. "This ruling allows our office to seek remedies for 25 women who were forced to accept sexual harassment by their male co-workers and supervisors as a requirement for their work at the Geo Group," said Mia Garcia, a spokesperson for the AZ Attorney General's Office.

The Hows and Whys of the Suit

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other interested groups brought suit against Geo Group in 2010, alleging that a number female employees were sexually molested and harassed at the Arizona State Prison-Florence West facility. One of the plaintiffs was Alice Hancock.

Hancock claimed that she had been subjected to repeated instances of humiliation, harassment, and discrimination by male co-workers, who would comment to her that they wanted to "ram [her] from behind," as well as requests of her and her female colleagues to perform fellatio on the male workers.

District Court Decision

One suit had been filed. U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton ruled in favor of defendant Geo Group, pointing out that the EEOC and Arizona State failed to properly conciliate to resolve the suit. Bolton also dismissed several defendants on the grounds that they had not committed the subject acts within 300 days of a reasonable cause determination as set out under the Arizona Civil Rights Division.

The hostile work environment claim that Hancock and fellow plaintiffs included in the complaint was also dismissed because it was determined that the conduct was not "sufficiently severe or pervasive."

Completely Overturned

The Circuit Court essentially disagreed with the lower district judge's rulings on all material points. Judge Consuelo Callahan wrote the opinion.

First, Callahan wrote, the EEOC extended its hand to GEO to conciliate the matter "in their reasonable cause determinations." But even if no good-faith conciliation attempts were made, the proper remedy would have been a stay of the proceedings -- not a dismissal of the claims.

Second, the dismissal of several male defendants was also plain wrong. This is because Judge Bolton misapplied the "300 days rule." The proper subject time for measurement was 300 days before Hancock's charge, not the date of a reasonable cause determination, Callahan corrected.

Finally, the dismissal of the claim of a hostile work environment was also improper. While it might be true that the claims of a couple of incidents where male co-workers made inappropriate remarks towards female employees -- or slapped female's rears -- might not amount to a hostile work environment, the totality of the evidence taken as a whole raised reasonable questions of fact that could support a reasonable jury to conclude that such behavior amounted to a hostile environment.

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