Quid pro quo and hostile environment sex harassment claims—two totally different claims—right? Or are they? While employers draw strict distinctions between these types of sex harassment, courts may not go along, as demonstrated in a recent 10th Circuit case, Jones v. Needham Trucking LLC et al.

Types of Sex Harassment Claims.

Traditionally, two Title VII sexual harassment claims exist: quid pro quo and hostile work environment. The two sex harassment theories have different meanings, have different elements of proof, and are generally referred to distinctly. In short, quid pro quo (“this for that”) means that an employee submitted to or refused to submit to a supervisor’s sexual demands and suffered a tangible employment action as a result. Hostile work environment, on the other hand, means conduct that is so severe or pervasive that it creates an abusive working environment.

So What Happened in the 10th Circuit Case?

The differences in the two theories are typically not lost on employers. In the Needham Trucking case, Jones, a mechanic, claimed in his lawsuit that he was fired because he would not have sex with his supervisor—a classic quid pro quo allegation. However, Jones’ EEOC charge did not expressly allege quid pro quo sexual harassment. Rather, the charge alleged that Jones was subjected to “sexual remarks” by his supervisor, that he complained about those remarks but nothing was done, and that the same supervisor subsequently terminated his employment without giving him a reason why—classic hostile environment allegations. The defendants moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s quid pro quo sexual harassment claim for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. A Title VII plaintiff must, of course, exhaust his or her administrative remedies by filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC identifying the factual-basis for the claim(s) of discrimination and/or retaliation. The defendants argued that Jones failed to exhaust the quid pro quo sexual harassment claim he later asserted in his lawsuit, conceding that he had properly exhausted a hostile work environment claim.

The United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma agreed, dismissing the plaintiff’s quid pro quo claim for failure to exhaust his administrative remedies. Jones appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, who reversed the district court.

In a 2-1 decision, the 10th Circuit held that Jones had properly raised a quid pro quo sexual harassment claim with the EEOC even though the charge did not specifically mention quid pro quo sexual harassment or specifically allege facts to meet the definition. The Tenth Circuit ruled that Jones’ allegations were sufficient to exhaust administrative remedies because they alerted the defendants to the alleged harassment and should have sparked an investigation. The Court noted that

“Both [quid pro quo and hostile work environment] scenarios lead to the same place: sexual harassment that violates Title VII’s proscription against sex discrimination in the workplace. . . . Though the descriptors matter a great deal insofar as they reveal what elements are needed to prove the specific claim of sexual harassment . . . they are not so unrelated that the facts of the two scenarios could not overlap, or that an investigation resulting from facts specific to one category could not also fall within the scope of an investigation of the other.”

The dissent did not disagree with the majority’s analysis, but rather argued that Jones had waived the argument regarding administrative exhaustion of the claim on appeal.

What Does this Mean?

Does this change how employers approach harassment claims? Probably not. This Tenth Circuit case shows that, while employers may try to bifurcate quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile work environment claims into two distinct camps, courts may not be willing to make such a distinction, at least when it comes to the question of whether a charging party has exhausted administrative remedies. As a practical matter, this decision may change some of the defenses raised during litigation, but it should not change how an employer handles a sexual harassment complaint or administrative charge. As with any complaint, employers should investigate broadly—looking for anything that might violate their policies. So—even if an employee complaint only mentions a hostile work environment, you still need to be sure there aren’t quid pro quo harassment allegations lurking in the wings.