In the recent case Stevens v. Saint Elizabeth Medical Center, Inc., the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that terminating an employee after discovering a consensual, but inappropriate, workplace relationship that has soured is not grounds for wrongful termination or hostile work environment.
The case involved a nurse, Caroline Stevens, who worked for Physician Associates, LLC and Patient First Physicians Group, the latter of which was later acquired by Saint Elizabeth Medical Center. Stevens served as a nurse and personal assistant for the Doctor. During many of the years they worked together, Stevens and the Doctor had a romantic relationship, until Stevens broke it off in 2009 when she learned that the Doctor had not divorced his wife.
Stevens later filed a complaint that her site supervisor, Gary Brown, was pressuring her to take a new position after the Doctor expressed a desire to reduce his patient load. She noted that no patients had been transferred to other doctors. Brown was aware that Stevens and the Doctor used to be in a relationship. Investigation into the complaint revealed that Stevens and the Doctor not only had an affair, but that they also had several sexual episodes on office grounds. As a result, their employer gave them both the option of resigning or being terminated. The Doctor resigned, while Stevens was terminated. Stevens then filed a lawsuit against the Doctor, Patient First Physicians Group, and Saint Elizabeth Medical Center, alleging sexual harassment under Title VII, the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, wrongful termination (retaliation) and fraud. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment and the district court ruled in their favor. Stevens then appealed to a three-judge panel on the Sixth Circuit to review the case.
The Sixth Circuit panel affirmed the lower court ruling. First, the court rejected Stevens’s argument that being pressured to take another position amounted to a hostile work environment. Stevens had failed to demonstrate that Saelinger’s actions created a work environment that an objective person would consider hostile. Even if Stevens did not want to receive romantic texts and physical gestures from Saelinger, his gestures did not represent intimidation, and was not physically threatening in a way that would interfere with Stevens’s work. Moreover, Stevens wanted to continue working with Saelinger, rather than be transferred to a new department. The Sixth Circuit panel then reviewed Stevens’s retaliation claim. That, too, was rejected because Stevens’s employer gave legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for terminating her employment: their sexual encounters in the office and the way their relationship disrupted general in-office working relations. Moreover, Saelinger was given the same ultimatum as she — to resign or be terminated. Finally, the court rejected Stevens’s fraud claims, noting that Saelinger’s “fraudulent” statements about his wife never resulted in monetary loss for Stevens.
If you live in Kentucky and believe that you are experiencing a hostile work environment, contact a Kentucky hostile work environment attorney as soon as possible.
Miller & Falkner is a plaintiffs law firm serving residents of Kentucky and Indiana. Located in Louisville, Kentucky, the firm provides representation in the areas of personal injury and employment law. Contact us today for a free consultation.