Why it matters

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit allowed a professor to move forward with her Title VII hostile work environment claims under the continuing violations doctrine, reversing summary judgment in favor of the educational institution where she worked. A female math professor alleged that her male supervisor harassed her for years because of her gender, interfering with her classes and refusing to let her participate on committees, write grants or teach online courses or advanced classes. A district court judge granted summary judgment for the school based on statute of limitations grounds as most of the conduct at issue occurred more than 300 days before she filed her charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the more recent allegations were insufficient to support a hostile work environment claim. But the federal appellate panel reversed, holding that the district court should have applied the continuing violations doctrine, remanding the case for reconsideration.

Detailed discussion

A math professor at Southern University's New Orleans campus, Panagiota Heath alleged that when Mostafa Elaasar became her supervisor in 2003 he began a campaign of harassment that lasted more than a decade. Heath claimed Elaasar interfered with her classes (rewriting her exams and coercing a student to make a complaint against her) and denied her request for a sabbatical to write a book (telling her he didn't think she was capable of doing so).

Heath filed a lawsuit in 2009 in state court asserting sex discrimination but stopped pursuing it; she also complained to the school but the university did not respond. Heath took a sabbatical due to job-related stress during the 2010–2011 school year but alleged that when she returned in the fall of 2011, Elaasar's harassment continued unabated. He refused to allow her to participate in any committees, would not allow her to teach online courses or advanced classes, and isolated her from department business, she claimed.

More than 200 students filed a petition on Heath's behalf with the school and Heath made multiple complaints but the university did not respond. Heath filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and then a federal complaint against the school and Elaasar, alleging she was subject to a hostile work environment under Title VII.

A district court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment. Most of the allegedly harassing conduct Heath relied on occurred outside the statute of limitations (300 days before the filing of her EEOC charge), the court said, and looking only at the conduct that occurred after that, Heath failed to present adequate evidence to support her claim.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed. The district court erred by neglecting U.S. Supreme Court guidance on the application of the continuing violation doctrine found in the 2002 opinion National R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, the panel said.

Morgan "distinguishes discrete acts that form the basis of traditional discrimination claims from continuing conduct that forms the basis of hostile work environment claims," the Fifth Circuit explained. "Claims alleging discrete acts are not subject to the continuing violation doctrine; hostile workplace claims are. Hostile environment claims are 'continuing' because they involve repeated conduct, so the 'unlawful employment practice' cannot be said to occur on any particular day. As long as an 'act contributing to the claim occurs within the filing period, the entire time period of the hostile environment may be considered by a court for the purposes of determining liability.'"

The decision also rejected the prior position of the Fifth Circuit and its use of three factors to evaluate whether or not a continuing violation existed, the court said. Expressly recognizing that Morgan overruled its prior test, the panel made clear the standard going forward: courts should focus on when harassment occurred—not when a plaintiff knew of an ongoing violation.

As the judge erred in using the prior standard to evaluate Heath's claims, the court reversed summary judgment and ruled that Heath's hostile work environment claims involved a continuing violation dating back to 2011 when she returned from her leave. "The conduct that she identifies from that point forward is related," the panel wrote, and the pre- and post-limitations period incidents involved the same type of employment actions, occurred relatively frequently, and were perpetrated by the same individual.

"There is no evidence the university took any intervening act after Heath returned from sabbatical that would have severed the continuing nature of the acts," the court added. "And the Defendants have pointed to no equitable consideration that should prevent the court from considering the full scope of the continuing conduct. We thus conclude that Heath has alleged a continuing course of conduct dating back to her return from leave in 2011."

To read the decision in Heath v. Board of Supervisors for the Southern University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, click here.