The Law @ Work

Non-sexual Incident Is Not an “Anchoring Event”

Claims for hostile work environment harassment generally are subject to a relatively short statute of limitations.  However, there is an exception to the statute of limitations, called the “continuing violation” doctrine, that allows a plaintiff to recover for related discriminatory acts or incidents of harassment that occur outside of the statute of limitations period, on the theory that those acts or incidents, taken together with acts occurring within the statute of limitations period, make up one ongoing violation.  Thus, even one discriminatory or harassing act within the statute of limitations period allows all previous related acts to be considered as part of the same violation.

In a recent decision, Sansoucy v. Southcoast Health Systems, Inc., the Massachusetts Appeals Court determined that harassment of a non-sexual nature occurring within the statute of limitations period does not allow plaintiff to recover for acts of a sexual nature that occurred outside of the limitations period.

Heidi Marie Sansoucy filed a complaint on November 30, 2009 alleging sexual harassment against her coworker, Lee Knight, along with other claims against her employer.  On October 19, 2006, Sansoucy complained to management for the first time that Knight had been sexually harassing her since 2005, including a time he kissed her and another he attempted to kiss her.  As a result, the director of human resources conducted an investigation.  The employer required Knight to take paid leave pending completion of the investigation.

During the investigation, Sancousy’s identity was kept confidential; however, Knight approached Sansoucy and asked her if she was the accuser.  Sansoucy reported the incident to human resources on October 24, 2006, and on November 1, 2006, Knight was given a Written Warning and told to stop speaking to other employees about the complaint and to stop asking who the accuser was.  At the conclusion of the investigation, Knight was reinstated and the parties agreed that no further acts of sexual harassment occurred after November 1, 2006.

Thereafter, Knight continued to approach Sansoucy and inquire as to whether she was his accuser. Sansoucy became afraid of Knight and would avoid him whenever possible.  Ultimately, Knight was terminated for violating the Written Warning, but before his termination, Sansoucy saw Knight, panicked, and said to another employee that she should get a gun.  Because of the gun comment, Sansoucy was issued a Written Warning and required to attend counseling with EAP as a condition of continued employment.  Sansoucy refused to comply and was terminated.

The trial court, considering all of the undisputed evidence, dismissed Sansoucy’s claim for sexual harassment on the ground that no objectionable sexual conduct had occurred after November 1, 2006 and, therefore, Sansoucy’s November 30, 2009 complaint was filed outside of the three year statute of limitations period.  Sansoucy appealed.

The Appeals Court agreed with the trial court reasoning that it was undisputed that Knight did not engage in any objectionable sexual conduct toward Sansoucy after November 1, 2006.  Although Knight’s inquiries occurring after November 1, 2006 concerned his prior acts of sexual harassment, those inquiries themselves did not contribute to a hostile work environment.  Accordingly, the inquiries that occurred after November 1, 2006 did serve as anchoring events and Sansoucy could not recover for the acts occurring outside of the three year statute of limitations period.

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