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Breakin’ Up is Hard to Do: And Also Makes It Hard to Prove Harassment

By Ryan Stefani

On December 24, the Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s finding that Tammy Roche had failed to establish that she was subjected to, and terminated for reporting, a sexually hostile work environment.  Roche v. Davenport Cleaners, Inc., No. 14–0140, 2014 WL 7343555 (Iowa Ct. App. Dec. 24, 2014).

During Roche’s employment, she engaged in an on-again-off-again romantic relationship with her coworker John Vlahoulis.  Each time Roche broke up with him, Vlahoulis would call Roche derogatory names.  Roche also testified some of the harassment was physical, and on one occasion Vlahoulis pushed her and on another he threw ice at her.  Roche would complain to management about the harassment, but would then tell management that she and Vlahoulis were back together and everything was fine.

Roche also called Vlahoulis male derogatory names, and another coworker, who had also dated Vlahoulis, testified that she witnessed Roche push Vlahoulis.  Roche also admitted to having called Vlahoulis’s former girlfriend female derogatory names. 

On February 18, 2008, while at work, Roche struck Vlahoulis in the forehead with an open-faced palm.  Vlahoulis responded by slapping Roche, which left a red mark on her neck.  Davenport Cleaners terminated Roche’s employment because it determined she had created a hostile work environment by striking the first blow.  On November 1, 2011, Roche sued Davenport Cleaners for alleged violations of her rights under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.  Roche claimed she was subjected to a hostile work environment and was discharged for having engaged in a protected activity, specifically, reporting the harassment to management.

The Iowa Court of Appeals held Roche failed to establish a hostile work environment because she had engaged in much of the same conduct as her alleged harasser, and therefore the harasser’s conduct was not “unwelcome,” and also because it appeared the harassment was attributable to the aftermath of a failed relationship. By Roche’s own admission, Vlahoulis’s harassment only occurred after they had one of their frequent break-ups.  The Court also concluded that Roche could not establish a claim of retaliation because she could not show that the employer’s reason for her termination (that is, Roche physically striking Vlahoulis) was pretextual.  Thus, Roche’s claims of a hostile work environment and retaliation both failed.



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