Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Priest as Harasser in the Employment Law Context

I had often wondered when the sexual misconduct of a priest would show up in the context of an employment law case. There may well be others, but Legrand v. Area Resources for Community and Human Resources (8th Cir. 1/20/05) [pdf] is the first that I can remember. Fortunately for the employer the 8th Circuit relied on its relatively high bar for establishing the last element of a prima facie case of hostile environment sexual harassment, that the harassment affected a term, condition or privilege of his employment.

The plaintiff worked as a facilitator for a social services agency that was involved in urban renewal. Father Nutt was a parish priest within the area where the agency was located and was a board member. The plaintiff alleged that on three occasions over 9 months, Father Nutt harassed him. The first instance occurred after Father Nutt gave him a tour of his church and then asked him to "watch pornographic movies with him and 'to jerk off with him' to relieve stress." An invitation, LeGrand declined. When he reported the incident to his superiors they suggested that LeGrand seek counseling through the agency's EAP which he did.

Five months later LeGrand encountered Father Nutt at the Agency's offices. There was a repeat of the behavior, although this time Nutt:

(1) mentioned the pornographic movies again; (2) suggested LeGrand would advance in the company, if he watched “these flicks” and “jerk[ed Father Nutt’s] dick off”; (3) “kissed [LeGrand] in the mouth”; (4) grabbed LeGrand’s buttocks; and (5) “reached for [LeGrand’s] genitals.
Father Nutt himself conceded "hugging and kissing LeGrand, but Father Nutt believed the “peck on the lips” was “mutual.” Father Nutt also admitted to “brush[ing LeGrand’s] crotch with the back of my hand [, . . . b]ecause it seemed that [LeGrand] was stimulated by the hug.” The final incident was when Father Nutt gripped Legrand's thigh while each were seated at a table in the Agency's office.

After LeGrand filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, the Agency requested and received Father Nutt's resignation, and disciplined LeGrand's supervisors for not following the Agency's sexual harassment problem. (Presumably for sending the victim to counseling, rather than resolving the issue.)

Although the litigation was doubtless embarrassing for the Agency, at least it was successful as first obtained summary judgment which has now been affirmed by the 8th Circuit:

Viewing LeGrand’s claim in light of the demanding standard set by the Supreme Court and by Duncan and its progeny, Father Nutt’s behavior did not rise to the level of actionable hostile work environment sexual harassment. None of the incidents was physically violent or overtly threatening. There can be no doubt Father Nutt’s actions, admitted and alleged, ranged from crass to churlish and were manifestly inappropriate; however, the three isolated incidents, which occurred over a nine-month period, were not so severe or pervasive as to poison LeGrand’s work environment. Therefore, we hold LeGrand failed to establish the existence of a trialworthy question of fact on his hostile work environment claim.
Crass and churlish? That may well be the understatement of this New Year.

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