• Sexual Harassment Case Can Proceed to Trial Despite Consensual Relationship Between Plaintiff and Supervisor
  • February 5, 2005
  • Law Firm: Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP - Chicago Office
  • Denying an employer's motion for summary judgment, the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently held that a former property management trainee could proceed to trial with her Title VII claim of sexual harassment based on actions taken by her boss after she attempted to end a consensual sexual relationship. Pergine v. Penmark Management Co., 314 F.Supp.2d 486 (E.D. Pa. 2004).

    Consensual at Inception

    Shortly after beginning her employment in July 2000, the plaintiff engaged in an on-again, off-again relationship with her supervisor. When the plaintiff attempted to terminate the relationship, however, she alleged that she was "greeted on numerous occasions with comments that indicated that her position with Penmark was dependent on her continuing the relationship." Shortly after the plaintiff attempted to break off their relationship in July 2002, her supervisor gave her a performance evaluation that stated that she had problems with her attitude and lacked independence. While the plaintiff received a pay increase and bonus just two weeks after this negative evaluation, she was terminated for "bad behavior" a few weeks later.

    The plaintiff filed suit against her former employer, alleging quid pro quo and hostile environment sexual harassment in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The employer moved for summary judgment, arguing that the consensual nature of the plaintiff's relationship with her supervisor removed the claims from Title VII's purview as a matter of law.

    Inconsistencies

    The district court disagreed with the employer, finding that "a relationship that is consensual at its inception does not necessarily preclude a quid pro quo claim by an employee, if the employee later attempts to break off the relationship, and suffers an adverse employment action as a result." More specifically, the court found that the plaintiff had offered sufficient evidence of a causal link between her response to her supervisor's unwelcome advances and his threats to fire her. Further, the court cited the "relatively close proximity" between the plaintiff's attempt to end the relationship in July 2002 and her termination.

    The court also relied on the inconsistencies in the employer's reason for the plaintiff's termination in denying the motion for summary judgment. While the court found that there was ample evidence in support of the employer's contention that the plaintiff suffered from job-related performance issues, the court found that the pay increase and bonus she received following her negative performance evaluation and just two weeks before her termination "belies [the employer's] argument and may cast doubt on the proffered reason."