Groped Employee Who Defended Self From Harrasser Did Not Forfeit Legal Protections

In Speed v. Wes Health System, a Pennsylvania Plaintiff survived dismissal of her suit for retaliatory discharge after she defended herself against a coworker who allegedly sexually harassed her for thirteen months. The employer Wes Health System (“WES”) fired both the harasser and Speed after she struck the harasser on the side of his face when he touched her leg a second time right after she warned him that she would defend herself after the first time. Speed had complained to her supervisor about the sexual harassment both orally and in writing. Other female employees complained about the harasser’s repugnant remarks, so the employer was on notice of the harasser’s behavior.

The court summarized the issue as: does an employee forfeit her retaliation rights under Title VII for physically defending herself against a sexual advance after an employer fails to take corrective measures about a hostile work environment.

Title VII protects against retaliation for an employee’s protected activity, which causes an adverse action by the employer against the employee. Speed’s employer tried to argue that violence against a coworker cannot be considered protected activity. The court stated that Speed engaged in protected activity when she first complained orally and in writing to her supervisor and when she complained to her supervisor about the incident that led to her discharge. The Court acknowledged that some sister courts had determined that self-defense could be legally protected opposition to harassment in limited circumstances, but it declined to adopt that position.

This court stated that it must look not only to the incident itself but the context in which it occurred stating that it is not “prepared to hold as a matter of law that a woman who has endured one groping needs to endure a second in order to preserve her job.” Though this employee prevailed in defeating a Motion to Dismiss, a different context for self-defense by an employee could have led to much different results.

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