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Terre Haute denied summary judgment on ex-employee's sexual, retaliatory harassment claims

June 11, 2019

A former city of Terre Haute employee alleging he was forced to resign due to sexual harassment in the workplace partially defeated a motion for summary judgement against him Tuesday. A federal judge determined the city couldn’t stand up to the man’s claims for retaliatory and sexual harassment or negligent supervision.

Stephen Stedman was employed in the Terre Haute Street Department as a sweeper operator for roughly 11 years, where he worked alongside Terry Fish Sr. and Monty Stillman. During Stedman’s employment with the city, other employees in the department harassed Fish, a maintenance worker with a cognitive impairment.

As a result, Fish filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging disability-based discrimination against the city and naming Stillman as a witness in the action. The city was similarly denied summary judgment on Stillman’s retaliation and negligence claims in a similar case following his employment termination.

While Stedman did not testify in Fish’s case, he admitted during deposition that he had personally experienced harassment from the same employees.

Specifically, Stedman alleged sexual harassment when co-workers made vulgar and/or offensive comments to him, fondled his breasts and rubbed his leg without consent, and nicknamed him “Titty Boy” based on his physical appearance. He also alleged the same people would play songs in his presence suggesting Stedman and Stillman had a romantic or sexual relationship. 

Stedman resigned shortly after Stillman’s employment was terminated, based on the expectation that Stedman would not be left alone by his harassers. Stedman was taking anxiety medication because of the harassment and bullying at work.

In August 2017, Stedman filed a complaint alleging retaliatory discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, sexual harassment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and a state-law claim for negligent supervision. Stedman alleged he was “forced” to retire because he knew he “was going to have to carry around a recorder every day” to prove he was being harassed.

The city moved for summary judgment on all of Stedman’s claims, but Indiana Southern District Judge James Sweeney II partially granted and denied that motion Tuesday in Stedman v. City of Terre Haute, 2:17-cv-00398.

In his decision, Sweeney granted the city’s motion as to Stedman’s claims for constructive discharge under the ADA and Title VII. However, he denied its motion as to Stedman’s claims for retaliatory harassment under the ADA, sexual harassment under Title VII and his claim for negligent supervision.

First, the city argued Stedman’s ADA retaliation claim failed for lack of evidence, and that Stedman did not request any relief under the ADA. Stedman countered that he presented sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether he suffered an adverse action in the form of retaliatory hostile-work-environment harassment and constructive discharge.

The district court found that while there were a few instances of physical touching and interferences with his work performance, most of Stedman’s harassment stemmed from name-calling and rude and insensitive comments regarding his relationship with Stillman – none of which were particularly severe or threatening.

“…(B)ut a reasonable jury could find that the harassment was humiliating and sufficiently pervasive,” Sweeney wrote, finding sufficient evidence to raise a question of fact on that claim.

The district court did not, however, find enough evidence to show that Stedman’s working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign.

“Furthermore, the evidence shows that the harassment declined while Stillman was off work and after Stillman’s employment was terminated, which occurred before Stedman’s resignation,” Sweeney wrote. “In fact, Stedman could not recall any acts of harassment or abuse of him after Stillman’s employment was terminated. Given this record, no reasonable jury could find that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign.”

Additionally, the district court found Stedman presented enough evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to causation, but not enough to raise a triable issue as to whether his harassment was in retaliation for reporting Fish’s troubles.

The court did rule in favor of Stedman’s second claim upon finding his nicknames could indicate sexual stereotyping, and that there was sufficient evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the harassment was based on Stedman’s sex or was sufficiently severe or pervasive.

Lastly, the district court concluded that because Stedman’s claimed ADA and Title VII violations survived summary judgment, his negligent supervision claim could also survive.

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