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Court decision upholds right to challenge ongoing employer harassment and retaliation

September 21, 2011 - Two years after the choir director began working at the church, one of the church’s most influential congregants as well as the church’s pastor began to make sexual advances towards her. When she rebuffed their advances and later reported their behavior to church leaders, both men became hostile toward her and continued the harassment. After years of humiliation, she asserted claims for sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and retaliation. The Circuit Court ruled against her, treating her claims as untimely because they were partially based upon incidents that took place over three years earlier, prior to the relevant limitations period for filing suit. 

The Public Justice Center filed an amicus brief on the woman’s behalf in Prince of Peace Lutheran Church et. al. v. Linklater on October 16, 2009. Although the case presented important legal questions concerning the circumstances under which religious institutions and leaders may be sued, the PJC’s brief addressed a separate critical issue that arises in a broader employment discrimination context. In the brief, former Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow Monisha Cherayil illustrated how employer retaliation against those who oppose workplace harassment or discrimination can, like the harassing or discriminatory acts themselves, occur incrementally over a period of time rather than through discrete, easily-identifiable employer actions such as termination or demotion. Accordingly, the brief urged, the well-established “continuing violation” doctrine should apply to render timely retaliation claims based upon the accumulation of multiple acts. Second, the brief exposed the frequent overlap between harassing and retaliatory conduct. The PJC’s amicus brief, in taking these positions, pressed the Court of Appeals to abandon some of its own outdated case law and take a real-world view of how sexual harassment and retaliation play out in the workplace.
In its September 21, 2011, decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals addressed the so-called ministerial exception to law suits and then agreed with the PJC that the woman’s retaliation claim was timely on a continuing violation theory. More particularly, the Court concluded that she had been subjected to a series of retaliatory acts that together formed a single continuing violation which occurred within the limitations period for filing suit. In reaching this conclusion, the Court implicitly recognized that acts of sexual harassment and acts of retaliation for reporting such harassment are not always wholly distinct from one another; rather, unscrupulous employers may simultaneously use both harassing and retaliatory conduct to exert control over employees. The Court’s holding helps ensure that employees who have been subject to such conduct on a continuing basis over the course of years can vindicate their right to a non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory workplace.

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