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Harassment claim survives severance agreement

A woman who worked at a Roanoke packaging plant gets another chance to recover on her Title VII sexual harassment claim.

Her suit alleged a supervising male employee stalked her, forced her to have sex with him in order to avoid disciplinary action and told coworkers she was a “whore” and had a sexually transmitted disease. She said complaints to plant supervisors brought no relief.

When Carla Dulaney sued Packaging Corporation of America, Roanoke Senior U.S. District Judge James C. Turk granted summary judgment for the employer, who said it had not terminated Dulaney.

The employer pointed to the language of a severance agreement it offered Dulaney, and a letter saying she could return to her job, as evidence that it had not taken “adverse employment action” against her. But she testified the HR rep who gave her the letter told her she would be fired if she did not sign the severance agreement. When she refused to sign, another company rep walked her to her locker and told her to gather her belongings, took her key to the facility and escorted her off the premises. Dulaney also pointed to evidence the company took her off the payroll three days before it gave her the severance agreement.

In a published opinion released yesterday, a 4th Circuit panel vacated summary judgment for the employer. Judge Allyson K. Duncan said the district court erred by giving “dispositive weight” to the severance agreement.

The supervising employee, Bobby Mills, claimed his relationship with Dulaney was consensual and provided supporting affidavits. Duncan said the employer spent much of its brief trying to undermine Dulaney’s credibility with discussion of coworker affidavits saying Dulaney told them she formerly worked as a stripper and an escort. These references were of “questionable relevance” and “unhelpful” in reviewing the motion for summary judgment, Duncan said.

Duncan said a jury should decide whether Mills was Dulaney’s supervisor and whether his actions such as sending her home early without pay amounted to tangible employment action.
–By Deborah Elkins

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