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June 05, 2008
Was Promotion Denied Because of Gender Bias?

A Florida deputy sheriff complained that a new supervisor sexually harassed her. Having been transferred away from the supervisor, the deputy sought a promotion to a particular job, but it went to a man. That's when she sued for harassment and bias.

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What happened. After 9 successful years on the job, the woman gained a new supervisor, who she complained made many inappropriate comments to her. When officers investigated, a more egregious comment that she had not reported came to light, and she was given a choice of relocations to remove her from the offender's chain of command. She also asked for a letter of apology from him, which she received after her transfer. In all, she had reported to him for just 3 months.

Three months after that, she applied to become a school resource officer (SRO). There were two openings, one of which went to a candidate who was ranked higher than her. She felt the second slot should have been hers, but it went to a male candidate ranked lower than she. She tried to contact the HR officer who had responded to her harassment complaint but failed to reach him for 3 more months. She then submitted a letter of resignation--and sued for both sex discrimination and sexual harassment.

Her case was tried before a jury that awarded her $550,000 in damages. But the county appealed the verdict, and a judge overturned it, ruling against her. She appealed to the 11th Circuit, which covers Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.

What the court said. Sheriff's Office managers argued that the second SRO position had been at a middle school where 60 percent of the students had committed violent crimes and 43 percent had already attacked a law enforcement officer. They appointed a "very physically imposing" man instead--a former defensive tactics instructor and SWAT team leader. They feared for her safety at that school, they later testified. In addition, they had offered her a different SRO position when she submitted her resignation, which she termed "too little, too late."

Finally, managers argued, they had responded promptly and effectively to her charges of sexual harassment. Appellate judges ruled that the harassment visited on her, although "taunting and boorish," wasn't severe or pervasive. In all, judges affirmed the lower court decision, again ruling against her. Webb-Edwards v. Orange County Sheriff's Office, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, No. 07-12599 (4/22/08).

Point to remember: If the HR officer hadn't ignored her for several months, and we don't know why he did, the office might have retained a valued employee.

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