King County Corrections Officer Who “Looks Good For Her Age” May Pursue Her Sexual Harassment Claim

By: Loyd Willaford and Sarah Burke

In Coleman-Askew v. King County, a King County female corrections officer alleged she was sexually harassed after her supervisor, Captain Hardy, followed her to the gym and made comments about how she “looked good for her age.”  The corrections officer sued, alleging these comments caused her to request a transfer to a different department and resulted in a loss of workplace benefits. The department alleged these comments were not sexual in nature and therefore did not constitute sexual harassment. The United States District Court in Western Washington agreed with the officer and found that she could pursue her claims against the department.   The District Court did dismiss some of the officer’s claims, specifically those against Captain Hardy’s supervisor.

Sharon Coleman-Askew had been employed as a correctional officer with King County since 1987.  However, during her employment, Coleman-Askew alleged she began to experience sexual harassment and bullying from her supervisor, Captain Hardy. Specifically, Coleman-Askew alleged that Captain Hardy would time his gym visits to coincide with hers, and made comments like  “you look good for your age” and “[Hardy] could see why it was that she looked as good as she did.” Following this behavior, Coleman-Askew asked for a transfer from her department to a different facility, which resulted in a loss of $5,000 in yearly benefits.

After her transfer, Coleman-Askew filed her lawsuit against the department where she alleged she had been discriminated against because of her sex and constructively discharged. The department argued that Coleman-Askew’s sexual harassment claims were unmerited because the comments she received were not sexual in nature and not severe or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of her employment.

The District Court disagreed with the department and commented:

[t]he Court concludes that a reasonable fact finder could find that Hardy’s conduct, including making comments like “you look good for your age” while observing Plaintiff exercise, were of a sexual nature.  …  Although a reasonable fact finder could also easily find that the conduct complained of is nothing but the type of minor slight or annoyance that all employees regularly endure as part of any workplace … the Court finds that Plaintiff has presented just enough evidence to create a triable issue of material fact and to foreclose summary judgment on this basis.

This case illustrates a court which properly applied the summary judgment standard.  It allowed claims to go to trial with less evidence than the District Court might have liked, but which the District Court recognized a reasonable juror might find enough to conclude that the officer was sexually harassed.    The District Court did dismiss some of the officer’s other claims because she presented no evidence to support them. This included claims against Hardy’s supervisors.  In order to have claims against a supervisor of a harasser, a plaintiff must present evidence independent of the harassment that suggests that the supervisor knew about and ignored the harassing behavior.  The officer did not have that evidence in this case, so the District Court dismissed those claims.

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