If you have been experiencing persistent workplace sexual harassment for a long time, perhaps for months or even years, you may think it is too late to report the wrongdoing, but a recent federal case from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, citing news regarding “a veritable firestorm of allegations of rampant sexual misconduct that has been closeted for years, not reported by the victims,” held that whether waiting too long to report the workplace sexual misconduct was reasonable depends on your circumstances.

In the case of Minarsky v. Susquehanna County, released by the Third Circuit on July 3, 2018, the Court held that Sheri Minarsky’s four-year delay in notifying her employer, Susquehanna County, of sexual advances made by her immediate supervisor, Thomas Yadlosky, was not unreasonable as a matter of law. The district court below had granted summary judgment to Susquehanna County under the Faragher-Ellerth defense. This defense is available to an employer who can show it “exercised reasonable care to avoid harassment and to eliminate it when it might occur,” and that the employee “failed to act with like reasonable care to take advantage of the employer’s safeguards and otherwise prevent harm that could have been avoided.” The Third Circuit appellate court reversed the summary judgment, holding that a jury should decide whether Minarsky’s delay in reporting the harassment was unreasonable.

Why a Victim Might Wait a Long Time to Report a Supervisor’s Sexual Harassment

Sheri Minarsky worked as a part-time secretary three days a week at the Susquehanna County Department of Veteran Affairs, and worked for Thomas Yadlosky only on Fridays in an area far from other employees. Soon after she started working for him in 2009, Yadlosky would sexually harass Minarsky nearly every week by approaching her from behind and embracing or pulling her up against him, massaging her shoulders or touching her face, and attempting to kiss her on the lips before he left each Friday. Because they worked alone, others were seldom present to observe Yadlosky’s conduct, other than during the holiday season each year, when Yadlosky asked Minarsky and other female employees to kiss him under the mistletoe. Yadlosky would also question Minarsky about her whereabouts during her lunch hour, called her at home on her days off under the pretense of work, but proceeded to ask her personal questions, and sent her sexually explicit messages from his work email to her work email. Notably, Yadlosky would become hostile if she avoided answering his calls, and otherwise behaved unpredictably.

The harassment intensified as time passed. Minarsky stated in the lawsuit that she did not report the harassment sooner because she needed the job to pay for her young daughter’s cancer treatments. Minarsky claimed that Yadlosky knew her daughter was ill and that Minarsky depended on her job to pay medical bills. Also, Minarsky did not report the harassment sooner because she learned that prior complaints by others about Yadlosky’s behavior had not led to any substantive reprimand. Minarsky thought her complaint would do nothing to change her situation, and that she could lose her job by reporting the harassment.

The Third Circuit Court specifically acknowledged that

[T]here may be a certain fallacy that underlies the notion that reporting sexual misconduct will end it. Victims do not always view it in this way. Instead they anticipate negative consequences or fear that the harassers will face no reprimand; thus more often than not, victims choose not to report the harassment.”

Although in the past the law has viewed an employee’s outright failure to report persistent sexual harassment as being unreasonable and insufficient to support a legal claim, particularly where the opportunity to make such complaints exist, the Third Circuit clarified in Minarsky v. Susquehanna County that a mere failure to report one’s harassment is not per se unreasonable. The passage of time can be one factor while analyzing several other factors. Because workplace sexual harassment is highly circumstance-specific, it is a question for the jury, not the judge, to determine whether the employee’s subjective belief of potential retaliation from reporting harassment is well-founded.

Sheri Minarsky’s case is an example of how the law is being shaped by so many victims coming forward in the #metoo Movement, allowing victims more opportunities to seek redress for inexcusable conduct. As Judge Rendell put it, this appeal came in the midst of “a veritable firestorm of allegations of rampant sexual misconduct that has been closeted for years, not reported by the victims.” If you feel trapped in an uncomfortable employment situation, but think you are too late in remedying workplace sexual harassment, you should speak to an attorney who can guide you in making a change. We are here to listen and help.