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Ninth Circuit Revives Arizona Prison-Sex Case

PHOENIX (CN) - Sexual-harassment claims against a private prison company brought on behalf of female employees by Arizona's attorney general and a federal agency should be reinstated, the Ninth Circuit ruled Monday.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Arizona Law Department's Civil Rights Division sued the Florida-based Geo Group in 2010 on behalf of a number of its female employees at the Arizona State Prison-Florence West facility, including Alice Hancock.

Hancock, a corrections officer, claimed she had been subjected to discrimination, harassment and retaliation by male co-workers who would comment that they wanted to "ram [them] from behind" and asking them to "suck [the alleged harasser's] dick."

In 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton ruled for Geo, finding the EEOC and Arizona failed to properly conciliate with Geo.

The judge dismissed several employees who had not committed alleged acts within 300 days of a reasonable cause determination issued by the Arizona Civil Rights Division, and dismissed the hostile work environment claim of employee Sofia Hines because the conduct was not sufficiently severe or pervasive.

On Monday, Ninth Circuit Judge Consuelo Callahan wrote for a three-judge panel that EEOC and the civil rights division properly attempted to resolve their claims with Geo.

"The EEOC and the division invited Geo to conciliate the matter in their reasonable cause determinations," Callahan wrote. "Additionally, the EEOC and the division conveyed a conciliation letter to Geo that outlined a proposal to settle Alice Hancock's charge of discrimination and the claims of other aggrieved employees of Geo."

Even if the EEOC and the Arizona's Civil Rights Division did not conciliate, Bolton's dismissal of employee claims was not proper, the Ninth Circuit ruled.

"[T]he appropriate remedy would be a stay of proceedings to permit an attempt at conciliation, not the dismissal of the aggrieved employees' claims," Callahan wrote.

Callahan also found that Bolton improperly dismissed the claims of employees who had not alleged discriminatory acts within 300 days of a reasonable cause determination by the civil rights division. The proper starting date is 300 days before Hancock's charge, not the reasonable cause determination, she ruled.

"This is evident from the plain language of Title VII that requires a 'charge' be filed 'within 300 days after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred,'" Callahan wrote.

According to Callahan, Bolton's dismissal of Hines' hostile work environment was also incorrect.

Callahan wrote that, while Hines' claims that a male employee of Geo "made unwanted physical contact with her by 'spank[ing]' her butt in front of inmates and a cadet" and repeatedly talked dirty to her might not "in itself be sufficient to support a hostile work environment claim, their cumulative effect is sufficient to raise material issues of fact as to whether the conduct was so severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the workplace."

Callahan ordered Bolton to reinstate the EEOC and the Arizona Civil Rights Division's dismissed claims.

"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, a private company that contracts with the [Department of Corrections]," said Mia Garcia, spokeswoman for the Arizona Attorney General's Office. "The court's ruling allows our office to continue to work toward ending a workplace culture of accepting and expecting physical and verbal sexual harassment against female correctional officers employed by the Geo Group."

Pablo Paez, vice president of corporate relations for the Geo Group, declined to comment on Monday's ruling.

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