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7th Circuit: Man failed to show sexual harassment

October 10, 2008

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a District Court's ruling in favor a man on his retaliation claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, finding the man didn't believe his supervisor's advances and threats were illegal.

In Alshafi Tate v. Executive Management Services, Inc., No. 07-2575, Executive Management Services appealed the District Court's ruling in Alshafi Tate's favor in his retaliation claim. Tate filed a suit against EMS, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation after he claims he was fired for not continuing a sexual relationship with his supervisor, Dawn Burban.

But Tate didn't engage in any protected activity, as required under Title VII, when he told Burban he didn't want to continue their sexual relationship to keep his job. To engage in protected conduct, Tate only has to show that he "reasonably believed in good faith that the practice he opposed violated Title VII," wrote Judge Ann Claire Williams. The 7th Circuit hasn't ruled on the issue of whether a person who rejects a supervisor's sexual advances has engaged in a protected activity. But even if the court assumes there may be circumstances in which a person who rejects his or her supervisor's sexual advances has engaged in protected activity, Tate failed to show he believed that Burban's actions were unlawful, Judge Williams continued.

Tate didn't make statements that indicated he believed he was being sexually harassed, and any statements he did make pointed to personal reasons for ending the relationship with Burban rather than concerns about the legality of her behavior.

"We do not dispute that Tate protested about Burban's behavior; the problem is that he did not necessarily believe that her behavior was illegal at the time," wrote Judge Williams. "While there are no 'magic words' that a plaintiff must use in order to indicate that the supervisor's behavior is unlawful ... the record is devoid of any statements that indicate sexual harassment was at issue."

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