To establish a hostile work environment claim in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a Plaintiff must show that: (1) he experienced unwelcome harassment; (2) the harassment was based on sex; (3) the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create a hostile work environment; and (4) some basis exists for imputing liability on the employer.

The Plaintiff in Olekanma v. Wolfe, No. DKC 15-0984, 2017 BL 336103 (D. Md. Sept. 22, 2017), failed to provide a basis to impute liability to his employer, therefore, his hostile work environment claim was dismissed.

The Plaintiff was employed by The Maryland Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services (“MDPSCS”) as a corrections officer. The Plaintiff alleged that Electa Awanga, a nurse employed by Wexford Health Sources Incorporated (“Wexford”) — MDPSCS’s medical contractor, repeatedly sexually harassed him. 

The Plaintiff’s allegations of sexual harassment revolved around the actions of a single person, Ms. Awanga, who was not employed by the Defendants but by a contractor. When a harassment claim is based on the actions of a non-supervisory coworker, employers are liable only for their own negligence in failing, after actual or constructive knowledge, to take prompt and adequate action to stop it.  An employer can be deemed to have actual knowledge if the employer, or high-echelon officials of an employer organization, are aware of the conditions.  An employer can be deemed to have constructive knowledge if a reasonable employer, intent on complying with Title VII, would be aware of the harassing conduct.

The Plaintiff had not alleged that a reasonable employer should have known about the harassment nor identified any inadequacy in his employer’s compliance program.  Thus, there was no basis to find constructive knowledge. 

The Plaintiff admitted that he did not complain initially when the conduct happened.  He alleged, however, that a Sergeant Emenike saw Ms. Awanga spill a drink on him and that Sergeant Emenike ignored his complaints about Ms. Awanga. The complaint contained no information about what Plaintiff told Sergeant Emenike and whether it related to sexual harassment. Sergeant Emenike was alleged to be with the Plaintiff when the drink was spilled and also when Ms. Awanga yelled at Plaintiff after Plaintiff told her to throw away food she was taking home from Jessup Correctional Institute (“JCI”).

Neither of these incidents, the court ruled, would put a reasonable person on notice of sexual harassment.

In addition, even if Sergeant Emenike had notice, the Plaintiff had not pled any facts to support a finding that Sergeant Emenike was the type of employee whose knowledge could be imputed to the employer. The Plaintiff had not alleged that Sergeant Emenike was a management-level employee or that he had authority over employees.

Indeed, Plaintiff’s own actions belied the point. He went directly to the Warden, Assistant Warden, and Chief of Security when he wanted to give notice of the alleged harassment. This decision suggested to the court that these were the employees whose knowledge could have been imputed to the employer. Thus, regardless of what Sergeant Emenike knew, his knowledge could not be imputed to the employer. 

The Plaintiff allegedly reported the sexual harassment to the shift captain, Warden, Assistant Warden, and Chief of Security.  To demonstrate negligence, the Plaintiff would need to show that, after learning of the conditions, his employer failed to take prompt remedial action designed to end the harassment.  Here, however, the Plaintiff alleged no act of harassment occurred after his complaint, and he admitted that he was removed from the environment within two weeks of his email. 

Moreover, the attachments to the Plaintiff’s complaint negated any possible claim of employer negligence. Despite being on leave, Assistant Warden Campbell immediately responded to the Plaintiff’s email, advised the Plaintiff of his right to file an EEO complaint, explained that a supervisor could help him file his complaint, and explained that JCI needed more information such as specific dates, times, and actions to start an investigation.  After receiving the email, Plaintiff did not immediately file the EEO complaint and decided to wait until Assistant Warden Campbell came back from his vacation to pursue the matter.  Assistant Warden Campbell, while still on vacation, responded again and reiterated his request for a formal complaint with sufficient information to begin an investigation.  Because of complaints lodged against Plaintiff, by the time Assistant Warden Campbell returned, Plaintiff had already been removed from the alleged hostile work environment.  Thus, Defendants could not have been negligent because they remedied the problem, albeit for different reasons, before Plaintiff had even provided them with all the information.

In sum, the Plaintiff had failed to allege sufficient facts to show that Defendants knew about the harassment and acted negligently, therefore, his claim of a hostile work environment under Title VII was dismissed.