Prior to the #MeToo movement, which raised consciousness about the problem of sexual harassment by powerful men, this case might have ended differently.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia recently upheld a lower court’s refusal to dismiss sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Probation Officer Crystal Starnes against Butler County Court of Common Pleas and two individually named defendants, Thomas Doerr, the presiding judge of the court, and Thomas Holman, the Deputy Court Administrator.
Perhaps most significantly, the panel rejected Doerr’s claim of qualified immunity to the sexual harassment charge, meaning he can be held personally liable for what Starnes alleged were years of severe and pervasive sexual harassment.
Doerr argued he was immune because the 3rd Circuit had not previously recognized hostile work environment claims under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, which permits state employees to bring civil rights complaints under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The panel disagreed, pointing to a “robust consensus of persuasive authority” that such claims are actionable under the section.
The panel refused to dismiss Starnes’ lawsuit, finding she alleged sufficient facts to support a “plausible” claim of “severe and pervasive” sexual harassment.
According to the ruling:
Doerr met Starnes, then a probation officer for Allegheny County, at a Christmas party in 2004. He began to repeatedly call to ask her to meet him at his chambers. When she finally relented, he allegedly began kissing her and demanding sex. “Starnes did so even though Doerr’s advances were not welcome.”
Doerr told Starnes “their sexual interactions would be a ‘business relationship.’”
He subsequently used his authority to arrange to hire Starnes for a job at the Butler County Probation Office, which was her hometown. Thereafter, he began regularly summoning Starnes to his chambers and “cajoling her” into sexual relations and sharing pornography.
After their sexual relationship ended in 2009, Doerr continued to flirt with Starnes, asked her to film herself performing sexual acts and interrupted her when she spoke to male staff while holding her hand and “explaining that he could help her return to her previous job.”
Starnes began dating another probation officer in Butler County in 2010 whom she later married. “He was harassed and pushed into retirement by Butler County administrators.”
Starnes transferred in 2014 to another position but had second thoughts almost immediately and invoked her right to return to her job at the Probation Office within 30 days.
Holman allegedly told Starnes the “marriage was over” and she would have to sue to get her previous job back. Doerr finally permitted her to return “but only if she signed a general release waiving all claims against the Butler County Court of Common Pleas.”
Starnes then was subjected to a series of retaliatory acts. She was isolated and denied her own office, overtime, training opportunities, and the ability to go into the field and supervise other probation officers. She was omitted from the general email list for probation officers. When she visited probationers, Doerr assigned two male partners to accompany her because he believed it was too dangerous.
Starnes filed a complaint with the EEOC in 2016. Within two days of telling her supervisors, she was placed her on a “performance improvement plan,” allegedly at the urging of Doer and Holmann, despite having received a positive evaluation a month earlier.
The panel denied Starnes claim her right of association was violated when she was forced to engage in a sexual relationship with Doerr and when Doerr interfered with her relationship with her now husband.
The case is Starnes v. Butler Court of Common Pleas, No. 18-3271 , April 22, 2020. The panel included Judges Thomas Hardiman, who wrote the ruling, and Midge Rendell and Senior Circuit Judge D. Michael Fisher.
A petition on Change.org seeks Doerr’s removal from the bench; it had garnered 587 signatures as of Friday.