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Houston Firefighter Can Take Sexual Harassment Claim to Court

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has paved the way for a Houston firefighter to take her sexual harassment claim to court.

This ruling also sets two important precedents:

  1. Someone can be sexually harassed behind their back.
  2. Employers can be liable if the harassment report goes up the chain of command but is stopped because the supervisor with the notice is one of the alleged harassers.

The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that the conduct in question is actionable under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Background of Firefighter Sexual Harassment Claim

A female firefighter discovered in 2017 that a fellow Houston Fire Department firefighter had obtained a 2008 video that she had made exclusively for her husband. The nude video was on her personal laptop.

The firefighter then shared the video with a fire district chief. Both male firefighters watched the video repeatedly over nine years. Court documents show that at least one other firefighter was in the room when the video was shown.

She only became aware of their access to the video when the district chief told her husband – also a firefighter – that he had seen the video. When her husband told her about others seeing their private video, she called in sick the next day.

A city therapist diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress syndrome. She eventually left the department in February 2019.

Sexual Harassment Claim Denied then Reinstated

The sexual harassment and hostile work environment lawsuit against the City of Houston was filed in 2018 with the 165th District Court in Harris County. The case was transferred the following year to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Presiding U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes dismissed her claim through summary judgment in 2021 for what he says was speculation, hearsay, or contrary to the collective bargaining agreements and fire department policies.

The case was appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where the panel partially reversed Judge Hughes’ earlier ruling in March 2022.

The circuit court said that the sexual harassment claim can go forward to trial but kept in place the dismissal of claims that the female firefighter was subjected to retaliation after making the harassment allegation.

In allowing the sexual harassment claim to move forward, the court said that “… a jury could surely find that the decision of two men to repeatedly watch a nude video of their female coworker was motivated by the fact that she was a woman. The harassment was based on sex.”

The court also stipulated that sexual harassment does not need to be experienced at the same moment the illegal conduct occurs. Offensive behavior can happen months or years before the harm is realized by a plaintiff. The circuit court said that the theft of the video was not the only form of harassment. The repeated watching of the video was an important aspect of the case. Her fellow firefighters watched the video repeatedly over nine years. They watched the video while on and off-duty, alone and in front of co-workers.

The panel went on to say that the City of Houston is liable because the fire chief had an affirmative duty to pass such information about the chain of command but did not. Instead, he was a party to the harassment.

Stand Up Against Sexual Harassment

If you have faced harassment or discriminatory behavior at work, contact our attorneys at Shellist Lazarz Slobin. Our firm has extensive experience in effecting handling a broad range of employment law cases.

Schedule an initial consultation about your labor or employment matter by calling (713) 352-3433.