By Deborah J. Hopkins, June 14, 2023

A new case from the EEOC on hostile work environment harassment illustrates the importance of an agency’s actions in not only avoiding liability, but also (and more importantly) in protecting the victim from continued unwelcome conduct. Joan V. v. VA, EEOC Appeal No. 2022002963 (Apr. 20, 2023). In this case, the agency was dinged for failing to “properly address” a situation where a complainant was receiving multiple unwanted sexually explicit text messages from an unknown source, on her government-issued cell phone. The messages included “multiple specific references to female genitalia and acts to be performed to male genitalia.”

The complainant requested a new phone number on March 25, 2021. On March 29, the IT Service Desk denied the request, responding via email: “‘Each phone comes with a SIM card that supports a number. We pay for each number we receive. We can’t change out your number due to too many calls and text messages … The cost does not outweigh the benefit.’”

Over the next several weeks, the complainant made multiple additional attempts to get a new phone or phone number. She was given what we Midwesterners call the “run-around.” She finally received a new phone number on May 21 — eight weeks after her initial request.

Unfortunately, the sexually explicit messages began coming to her new number. Over the course of the next several weeks, her number was changed yet again. In August 2021, five months after the initial request, the complainant received a third new phone number and requested that the “number not be placed in the Global Address Listing (GAL).” The agency granted her request and this resolved the problem. She finally stopped receiving unwanted text messages. The case does an excellent job setting out the legal standard for HWE claims: To establish a claim of harassment, the complainant must show:

  • she is a member of a statutorily protected class;
  • she was subjected to unwelcome verbal or physical conduct involving the protected class;
  • the harassment complained of was based on the protected class;
  • the harassment had the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with the work environment and/or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment; and
  • there is a basis for imputing liability to the employer.

[Citation omitted.]

Based on the number, duration, and egregious nature of the text messages, the EEOC found the first four elements satisfied. The discussion on element 5 – agency liability – took into consideration the agency’s delay in providing prompt, effective correction action:

The Agency is under an obligation to do “whatever is necessary” to end harassment, to make a victim whole, and to prevent the misconduct from recurring… The ongoing nature of the harassing behavior demonstrates that actions taken by the Agency were not effective in alleviating the harassment. As such, we find that Complainant established that she was subjected to harassment based on sex for which the Agency is liable.

The moral of the story: It shouldn’t take five months to provide prompt, effective corrective action to a victim of harassment. For more on harassment and other challenging EEO issues, join FELTG on July 12-13 for Advanced EEO: Navigating Complex Issues. [email protected]

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