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Court revives sexual harassment lawsuit targeting federal judiciary

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/26/2022 Ann Marimow
Caryn D. Strickland, a former federal public defender in North Carolina, testifies in March 2022 at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on workplace protections for federal judiciary employees. © Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/For The Washington Post Caryn D. Strickland, a former federal public defender in North Carolina, testifies in March 2022 at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on workplace protections for federal judiciary employees.

A federal appeals court on Tuesday revived a former public defender’s lawsuit challenging the federal judiciary’s handling of her sexual harassment and discrimination claims about a supervisor’s unwelcome attention at work.

The three-judge panel sided in part with Caryn D. Strickland, a former public defender in Charlotte, and said U.S. court leaders are not entirely shielded from being sued by judiciary employees. In its unanimous ruling, the panel recognized Strickland’s constitutional right — and that of all federal judiciary employees — to be free from sexual discrimination in the workplace.

The ruling comes as leaders of the federal judiciary have overhauled the court’s process for reporting misconduct, and as Congress is considering legislation to extend protections to the judiciary’s more than 30,000 employees who lack the same legal rights as other government and private-sector workers.

In a 118-page decision, the appeals court said Tuesday that judiciary employees in management roles can be held liable for “their deliberate indifference to sexual harassment committed by a federal judiciary employee or supervisor against another federal judiciary employee,” according to the opinion, written by Judge Mary Beck Briscoe of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

The panel said the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection clause “secures a federal judiciary employee’s right to be free from sexual harassment in the workplace. It thus both guards against sexual harassment perpetrated by other federal judiciary employees and protects federal judiciary employees from deliberate indifference on the part of federal judicial employees charged with preventing sexual harassment and investigating complaints of sexual harassment.”

All members of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which appoints the chief federal public defenders in its region, recused from the case because the lawsuit named the court’s governing body among the defendants, including the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the Judicial Conference of the United States and the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina. The case was decided by three judges from three separate circuit courts.

Comments on body parts. Questions about pregnancy. Court filing alleges ongoing harassment in judiciary.

Strickland’s lawyer, Jeannie Suk Gersen, a Harvard Law School professor, characterized Tuesday’s decision as a landmark ruling because it makes “crystal clear” that the federal judiciary, as an employer, “can be held accountable based on its constitutional obligations” by judiciary employees who experience discrimination.

The panel rejected Strickland’s request to disqualify U.S. District Court Judge William G. Young, who dismissed the lawsuit, prompting the appeal. It also limited the remedies Strickland can pursue.

The ruling sends the case back to district court, where Strickland’s claims now can be considered at trial or negotiated with the Justice Department, which is representing the government defendants. A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment on the decision.

The Administrative Office of the Courts also declined to comment on the pending litigation but pointed to “significant, far-reaching improvements to its workplace conduct policies, complaint procedures, and ethics codes, including significant improvements in the employment dispute resolution processes.”

“The Judiciary remains committed to promoting an exemplary workplace through engaged leadership, meaningful policy improvements, and more expansive education in the areas of civility, respect, and communication,” the office said in a statement.

Roberts says federal judiciary has some issues but doesn’t need congressional intervention

Strickland filed her lawsuit two years ago after trying unsuccessfully to resolve her concerns through the court’s internal dispute resolution process. Her appeal attracted support from more than 40 public-interest and civil rights organizations, in addition to constitutional scholars.

In March, she testified before a House Judiciary Committee considering legislation designed to improve workplace protections for judiciary employees and create an independent office to investigate misconduct complaints.

Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) called Tuesday’s ruling a “major victory” for the rights of all judicial branch employees but said in a statement it is “not enough.” “Congress must now step up to provide all judicial branch employees with the protections and remedies against sexual harassment and retaliation available to nearly every other public and private employee.”

Court leaders say congressional intervention is unnecessary and inappropriate for the separate, coequal branch of government.

Strickland resigned from the public defender’s office in 2019 before the latest changes to the judiciary’s reporting system took effect. She told the House committee in her public testimony that she was targeted by the top deputy in the office, alleging he made “quid-pro-quo advances.” When she told the chief federal defender, he compared the deputy’s authority over her to a marriage, Strickland told lawmakers, and ordered her to compromise with him before placing her more closely under the deputy’s supervision.

She told the committee she was “stonewalled at every turn, as judiciary officials protected the perpetrators and punished me.”

“I did everything I could to report the harassment,” Strickland testified, “but the officials in charge of addressing workplace misconduct failed to take the most basic steps to address it, and instead facilitated and aggravated the hostile working environment.”

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