The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently found that a lower court erroneously ruled against an Indiana prison employee who had brought Title VII discrimination claims against her employer.
The details of Orton-Bell v. Indiana seem like they belong in a movie or television show. Connie Orton-Bell worked as a substance abuse counselor in Pendleton Correctional Facility, one of Indiana’s maximum security prisons, from 2007 until April 2010. During her time in the position, she claimed that numerous sexually inappropriate behaviors took place in her work environment. For instance, an investigation into security breaches uncovered that night shift employees were having sex on Orton-Bell’s desk. The investigator’s only reaction was that Orton-Bell should wipe her desk off every morning.
Orton-Bell also claimed to be the personal recipient of many sexual remarks by her superior, Superintendent Brett Mize. Mize allegedly instructed Orton-Bell to never wear jeans to work because “her ass looked so good, she would cause a riot.” Such comments were allegedly common from Mize, who was eventually terminated for reasons unknown prior to the events that led to the lawsuit. However, Ortin-Bell claimed that these comments were common among all of the male employees, and that female employees were “bombarded.”
Orton-Bell finally had a love affair of her own with a 25-year veteran, Major Joe Ditmer, who was in charge of custody at Pendleton. This included having sex at Orton-Bell’s home during their lunch breaks and using work email to schedule their rendezvous and have other sexually intimate conversations. Their actions aroused the suspicions of then-superintendent Alan Finan, who thought that they could be violating the State Code of Ethics and the Department of Corrections code of conduct. Finally, Orton-Bell and Ditmer were terminated from their positions. Both appealed to the State Employees Appeals Commission, but only Ditmer was permitted to resign in good standing, keep all of the pension benefits he had accrued, and continue working at the prison as a contractor. By contrast, Orton-Bell did not receive a favorable resolution and ended up having difficulty obtaining unemployment benefits as a result.
Orton-Bell brought a Title VII suit against the state of Indiana, charging sexual discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment. A district court granted the state’s motion for summary judgment, dismissing Orton-Bell’s claims, but Orton-Bell then appealed to the Seventh Circuit.
The Seventh Circuit found that Orton-Bell provided enough evidence for most of her claims that the lower court’s ruling should be overturned. With the hostile work environment claim, the Court found that Orton-Bell provided evidence that the environment was subjectively and objectively offensive. While the Court rejected Orton-Bell’s claims that coworkers having sex on her desk was part of a hostile work environment, since it was not directed toward her based on her gender, the sexually charged comments and treatment did meet the elements of a hostile work environment. The Court also found that Orton-Bell provided enough evidence that her employer discriminated against her when it offered Ditmer a deal to resign in good standing but did not offer one to her. The failure to do so suggested that, despite being similarly situated, Orton-Bell was treated differently due to her gender. The Court remanded Orton-Bell’s case back to district court, where her hostile work environment and discrimination claims will be permitted to move forward.
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