A Virginia School Board Pays $80K to Settle Sexual Harassment Case against its Supervisor, a Former Judge

The Scott County School Board is facing heat after hiring former Judge Greg Baker, a man with a history of sexual indiscretions, to be the system’s Superintendent.  Greg Baker resigned from the Bench in Scott County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court after details emerged that, prior to his judgeship, he had been convicted of soliciting a prostitute.   Recently, the Assistant Superintendent of Scott County, Kellie Johnson, claimed that Baker began a pattern of sexually harassing her with daily suggestive comments, unwelcome overtures, and inappropriate crude remarks.  Johnson sued the Board and four members of the Board who she claimed purposefully discriminated against her by hiring Baker.

Despite Defendants’ attempt to dismiss Ms. Johnson’s case, Johnson v. Scott County School Board, et al., the Court permitted the case to proceed to trial against all five Defendants.  Merely days before the November trial, the Board settled the matter, and reportedly paid Johnson $80,000.00 to drop her case.  Nonetheless, the Court’s decision on Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss in this case could have a lasting impact on businesses and individuals with the ability to make hiring decisions.

In order to establish a sexual harassment claim against the School Board, Johnson had to show that she was harassed because of her sex, that the harassment was unwelcome, that it was sufficiently severe and pervasive to create an abusive working environment, and that some basis exists for imputing liability to the employer.  Oftentimes, a plaintiff’s complaint is dismissed against an employer if  the employee cannot establish that (s)he complained to upper management or human resources about the individual harassing her.

In this case, the Court held that it would be proper to impute liability on the School Board if, as Johnson alleges, the School Board had knowledge that “Baker had a propensity to engage in sexually inappropriate conduct directed against females because of their sex,” and in spite of this knowledge, decided to hire him anyways.  Such pre-employment knowledge sets forth a “direct basis for imputing liability to the School Board,” so the Court denied Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss the sexual harassment claim.

The Court also permitted a majority of Johnson’s allegations against the individual Board Members to proceed to trial for similar reasons.  The Board Members could have violated Johnson’s equal protection rights by hiring Baker, and may have displayed purposeful discrimination against women in completing such a hiring.  An important thing to keep in mind is that this claim only stretches to state officials acting in their official capacities, since it falls under a Section 1983 claim.  In this case, the Board Members were acting within the bounds of their authority and in their official capacities when they voted to hire Baker; thus, each Board Member could face individual liability.

There is no doubt that the Court’s opinion on Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss likely impacted the School Board’s decision to settle Johnson’s claims before trial.