Citing #MeToo Fallout, Court Lets Worker Take Claims to Jury

A female secretary for a Pennsylvania county will get to go to a jury on whether her employer’s workplace’s harassment policy was adequate and whether her failure to report the harassment she experienced was reasonable.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled July 3 that, among the “veritable firestorm of allegations of rampant sexual misconduct that has been closeted for years,” the reasonableness or unreasonableness of an alleged victim’s response to sexual harassment should be evaluated more carefully and treated like the intensely fact-specific situation it is.

The court’s opinion has “very important repercussions beyond this case because it directly addresses the disconnect between the way the law reads and how real-life workplaces operate,” David Koller of Koller Law in Pittsburgh said. He represented plaintiff Sheri Minarsky both at the trial court and on appeal.

The issue on appeal was whether Minarsky’s former employer, Susquehanna County, and her former supervisor and alleged harasser, Thomas Yadlosky Jr., could escape liability on her hostile work environment claim through the Faragher-Ellerth affirmative defense. Under that 1998 Supreme Court precedent, if an employer can show it exercised reasonable care to avoid and eliminate harassment and that a worker failed to act with reasonable care to take advantage of safeguards and prevent harm that could have been avoided, the defendants will escape liability.

Minarksy alleged she suffered years of unwanted touching, kissing, electronic communications, and isolation by Yadlosky because her family needed the income for their ill child. Yadlosky also had a pattern of harassing other female employees even after being reprimanded, she said, and Minarsky thought reporting him wouldn’t change anything.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled that Minarsky’s employers had satisfied the Faragher-Ellerth requirements and there was no need for a trial. But the Third Circuit reversed that decision and sent her hostile work environment claim back for a jury.

“Workplace sexual harassment is highly circumstance-specific, and thus the reasonableness of a plaintiff’s actions is a paradigmatic question for the jury, in certain cases,” the court said.

And in this case, there is enough dispute of fact over the circumstances under which Yadlosky and Minarsky worked that a jury should decide the ultimate question of whether the policies in place and Minarsky’s inaction in reporting her discomfort were reasonable.

Kreder Brooks Hailstone in Scranton, Pa., represented Susquehanna County. The Hanchulak Law Offices in Clarks Summit, Pa., represented Yadlosky. Attorneys for the defendants didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment.

The case is Minarsky v. Susquehanna Cnty., 2018 BL 236029, 3d Cir., No. 17-2646, opinion issued 7/3/18.

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