4th Circuit Reverses District Court's Grant of Summary Judgement in Sexual Harassment Case

In Okoli v. City of Baltimore, John P. Stewart was the director of Baltimore’s Commission on Aging and Retirement (“CARE”) and served in the Mayor’s cabinet. In June 2004, Stewart hired Katrina Okoli, an Africa-American woman, to serve as his executive assistant. For the first few months, Stewart and Okoli worked well together. Beginning in September 2004, things changed dramatically. Stewart began propositioning Okoli to have sex with him in a Jacuzzi as part of one of his sexual fantasies. Despite Okoli’s rejections, he continued to proposition her repeatedly about joining him in the Jacuzzi and made many other sexual comments to her. He also touched her multiple times, and tried to kiss her on one occasion in

January 2005 at which point she ran out went home for the day.

After this last incident, Stewart began criticizing Okoli’s work more harshly, placed added demands on her schedule, spread rumors about her, and reminded her that she was an “at-will” employee. Okoli then began reaching out for help in various ways, emailing various officials about filing a “harassment” complaint. None responded. On April 1, 2005, Okoli sent a formal complaint to Mayor Martin O'Malley. Later that afternoon, Stewart fired Okoli. Subsequent complaints to the City HR office and Community Relations Center went nowhere, so Okoli filed suit with Title VII harassment and retaliation claims among others. The district court granted summary judgment for the City on the grounds that Stewart’s conduct was not severe enough to constitute harassment and that the City had legitimate basis to fire Okoli.

The Fourth Circuit reversed on all theories. The Court had no trouble concluding the Stewart’s fondling, kissing, propositioning, describing sexual activities, and asking intimate questions collectively constituted conduct severe enough to be harassment. The Court also found credit in Okoli’s claim of quid pro quo harassment because Stewart arguably fired her for rejecting his advances and filing complaints. It found the timing of the firing to be highly suspicious and the City’s purported reason – Okoli’s typos in memos and minor scheduling mistakes – to be dubious. Okoli certainly had enough evidence of pretext to survive summary judgment. Finally, the Court concluded that Okoli had a viable retaliation claim based on her complaint of “harassment” and her firing just hours afterward. In sum, one has to wonder how the district court got this so wrong.