In most cases in order to demonstrate a hostile working environment due to sex, a plaintiff must show multiple incidents of harassment over a period of time. However, in some situations, allegations of harassment that occur without complaint for an extended period of time can help rebut claims of a hostile work environment. On August 31 in Blake v. MJ Optical, Inc., the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that allegations of sexual harassment going back 14 years could not be used to demonstrate a hostile environment.
In this case, the plaintiff had worked for a family business for decades. She alleged that in 1999, the owner’s son began a series of unwelcome touching and comments that occurred until her resignation in 2013. She sued under Title VII, claiming hostile environment sexual harassment. The Eighth Circuit affirmed dismissal of her claim on summary judgment, agreeing with the lower court that she failed to allege facts sufficient to allow the harassment claim to continue to trial.
The court based its decision on the fact that the plaintiff allowed the alleged harassing conduct to continue for a very long period of time without complaining or making anyone aware of these incidents. She also admitted that she had an overall good relationship with the owner’s son during these years. The Eighth Circuit said that this evidence indicated that the conduct was not unwelcome, and that raising complaints 14 years after the initial incident was “too little, too late.”
This decision reminds employers that employees cannot remain passive with regard to sexual harassment complaints. Failure to raise these complaints somewhat near the time that they allegedly occurred can defeat the employee’s later attempts to seek legal redress.