(CN) – A woman can sue Baltimore for firing her from her assistant job after she reported that her boss had allegedly subjected her to repeated sexual harassment and invitations to have sex in a Jacuzzi, the 4th Circuit ruled.
Katrina Okoli was fired in 2006 after two years of work for John P. Stewart, executive director to Baltimore’s Commission on Aging and Retirement. Stewart also serves as a member of Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley’s cabinet.
Okoli claimed pro se that Stewart engaged in many types of sexually hostile behavior toward her, including asking her not to wear underwear and touching her legs beneath a table during morning meetings. He also allegedly gave a graphic account of once having sex with a black woman and her daughter. Okoli is black.
“Okoli reacted with shock and disgust, which Stewart noticed,” according to the ruling, which notes Okoli is black. “Another time, Stewart again mentioned this sexual experience with a mother and daughter. Okoli reiterated that the daughter would despise and regret having such a lewd sexual encounter with her mother. Stewart laughed it off and returned to work, as Okoli suggests he often did.”
She also claimed that Stewart asked her to have sex in his Jacuzzi whenever they took business trips, and he became angry when she refused. She says she requested a transfer in November 2004 after he asked her to sit on his lap in a Las Vegas hotel Jacuzzi.
Stewart allegedly gave Okoli a bad performance review in January 2005, around the same time time that he forcibly grabbed and kissed her in a conference room.
a conference room, then forcibly grabbed and kissed her.
“Okoli pushed him away and ran out the door,” the ruling states. “She was so distraught that she went home and remained there for the day. When she returned to work the next day, Okoli stressed to Stewart that she still wanted to have only a professional relationship. While he initially said ‘O.K.,’ Stewart repeated his Jacuzzi fantasy again that same day.”
She said the executive director of the Baltimore Community Relations Commission never responded to her requests that month to file a complaint. She tried again in March and then formally complained to Mayor O’Malley on April 1. Stewart fired Okoli that afternoon.
Okoli sued the city, the Commission on Aging and Retirement, Stewart and the officials who allegedly ignored her complaints, including O’Malley.
A federal judge granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, saying Okoli made too much out of the factors that she said contributed to a hostile work environment. Stewart had a basis to fire Okoli because of her attitude, errors and absences, according to that ruling. The judge also said her retaliation claim failed because Stewart planned to fire her before she sent the letter.
A three-judge appellate panel reversed on Aug. 8, saying Okomi presented “a strong claim for hostile work environment.” It also said Okomi adequately alleged that her firing was pretextual.
“There is some evidence that Okoli occasionally had scheduling conflicts and made typographical errors,” Judge Roger Gregory wrote for the court. “But it appears deeply suspicious that Stewart fired Okoli only hours after she culminated her rejection of him by complaining to the mayor. There is little in the record to suggest Okoli would have been fired for the occasional typo, notwithstanding her ‘at-will’ employment status. Specifically, Stewart and Okoli’s last disagreements were about whether to meet at 8:30 a.m. instead of 8:00 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. instead of 2:10. It is hard to believe those lone scheduling conflicts were so egregious as to provide a legitimate basis for firing Okoli the same afternoon she complained about harassment.”
The 29-page decision also states that the trial court did not have enough evidence to determine that Stewart planned to fire her a week before she sent the letter. “It is undisputed that Stewart actually fired Okoli only after learning of her complaint,” Gregory wrote. “This is unaffected by the fact that he may or may not have had a draft termination letter on his computer beforehand. Even assuming Stewart previously contemplated firing her – Okoli’s complaint might have been an additional or superseding cause of her ultimate termination.”
The judges also slammed the trial court for boiling Okoli’s complaint down to “just three or four incidents” of physical harassment occurred over a five-month period. The Richmond, Va.-based federal appeals court found 12 total incidents in the presented evidence, including Okoli being subjected to jokes about gays and lesbians in the office and Stewart giving her gifts. “By any objective and reasonable standard, the allegations here are far beyond simple teasing and offhand comments,” the ruling says.