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Administrator Sues Board for ‘Hostile Environment’

Deborah Elkins//November 24, 2014

Administrator Sues Board for ‘Hostile Environment’

Deborah Elkins//November 24, 2014

A former director of special education states a sexual harassment claim against Pulaski County School Board based on a school board member’s persistent requests that plaintiff enter into a sexual relationship with him; the Roanoke U.S. District Court dismisses plaintiff’s quid pro quo harassment claim based on failure to promote but says her hostile environment claim may proceed.

Because the promotion decisions of which plaintiff complains occurred more than 300 days before plaintiff filed her EEOC charge, the court agrees the quid pro quo claim is untimely. Defendant’s alleged decision not to vote for plaintiff’s promotion to superintendent in March 2010, clearly occurred more than 300 days before plaintiff filed her EEOC charge. The school board’s Aug. 8, 2013 decision also falls outside this 300-day window. The school board announced its promotion decisions at an open school board meeting on Aug. 8, 2012. This public announcement provided notice to plaintiff that she had been passed over for a promotion, triggering the limitations period for any quid pro quo claim based on that decision.

Plaintiff contends the doctrine of equitable tolling should apply to extend the limitations period in this case, but the court is constrained to disagree. Plaintiff asserts she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of childhood sexual abuse and that her mental condition prevented her from coming forward to report the harassment promptly. Equitable tolling is only appropriate in cases of profound mental incapacity, however. The amended complaint belies any argument that equitable tolling should apply in this case. During the time period in which the alleged harassment occurred, plaintiff worked in a high-level position in the school system. She also alleges she was well qualified for promotion to the position of assistant superintendent or superintendent. Although the court is sympathetic to plaintiff’s traumatic childhood experiences and the lasting impact those experiences may have had on her, the court does not believe plaintiff could be both well-suited to overseeing an entire school district as superintendent and also incapable of understanding and maintaining her affairs generally, as is required for equitable tolling to extend the limitations period.

Plaintiff’s EEOC charge complaining about the harassment is replete with temporal language suggesting that the school board member’s unwelcome actions occurred repeatedly over time, including after he left the school board. The narrative goes so far as to explicitly state that his actions created a hostile work environment. The court concludes the hostile work environment claim is reasonably related to the contents of her EEOC charge, and that she has exhausted her administrative remedies with respect to that claim.

Plaintiff alleges she complained repeatedly about the school board member’s sexual advances to officials with positions of authority, including the chairman and vice chairman and other school board members, the human resources director and the superintendent, and these officials acknowledged they were aware of her complaints and of his behavior. Her hostile work environment survives defendant’s motion to dismiss.

Elitharp-Martin v. Pulaski County School Board (Conrad) No. 7:14cv21, Oct. 16, 2014; USDC at Roanoke, Va. VLW 014-3-589, 12 pp.

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