Northeastern State University must submit to discovery in Title VII and Title IX action alleging sexual harassment

A federal judge in the Western District of Oklahoma has denied Northeastern State University’s motion to dismiss a former employee’s claims of sexual harassment and retaliation under both Title VII and Title IX, after a coworker allegedly put his hands down her pants. 

 Deanie Hensley, the plaintiff in the action, worked for NSU in Tahlequah, Oklahoma for approximately 13 years. She alleged in her First Amended Complaint that multiple supervisors and co-workers engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior over that time, including sharing sexual cartoons and remarking on women’s bodies, but Hensley’s complaints resulted in no changes. After her complaint about a particular supervisor resulted in retaliation including stripping Hensley of job duties, she decided to take a position with a contract company that provided the university’s mail services. The joint employment with NSU and this company allowed her to continue working at NSU and using her expertise and familiarity with the NSU campus and personnel. However, Hensley alleges that one of the coworkers who had a habit of making offensive remarks sought her out on the job, then: “reached across the counter and put his hands down her jeans, with the backs of his hands against her stomach. He reached down to her panty line. He then pulled her belt buckle and shook it, commenting on how she had been ‘losing weight.'”  

 Shaken and traumatized by the assault, Hensley alleges that she complained to NSU campus police. Following even more complaints that the harasser was following Ms. Hensley and approaching near her in violation of a protective order, Hensley alleges in her Complaint that Steven Turner, NSU’s President, threatened the contract company with the loss of its contract if it did not remove Ms. Hensley from the NSU campus. Ms. Hensley alleges the inevitable result of this threat would be that she would lose her job–and that in fact, she did lose her job as a consequence. 

 Among others, Ms. Hensley brought claims against NSU under Title VII and Title IX alleging that she was subjected to a hostile work environment and fired in retaliation for her complaints. NSU moved to dismiss, arguing among other things that it was not Hensley’s joint employer, and that insufficient harassing conduct had taken place within 300 days of Hensley’s EEOC charge filing. Plaintiff pointed to allegations that NSU exercised significant control over her work performing mail services–including by exercising the power to end her employment. She further argued that the Complaint had alleged numerous instances of harassment within the 300 day period, as well as earlier conduct that could constitute part of a much longer continuing violation. 

 The Court by its May 19, 2022 Order denied NSU’s motion to dismiss the Title VII and Title IX sexual harassment and retaliation claims. Ms. Hensley will now be able to obtain relevant discovery to prosecute her claims against the University, which is currently set for trial in March 2023. 

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