Single unwanted kiss supports cop's harassment lawsuit, court says

REUTERS/Sergio Flores
  • Supervisor's kiss "close enough" to sexual harassment, court rules
  • Officer's claim that she was fired for reporting kiss revived

(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Monday said a Georgia police lieutenant's unwanted kiss of a subordinate was "close enough" to sexual harassment to support the officer's claim that she was unlawfully fired for complaining about it.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived a lawsuit by Laura Alkins, saying the kiss from her supervisor at the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office was severe enough to bolster her claim that she believed she had been sexually harassed.

In her 2020 lawsuit, Alkins had claimed she was fired in retaliation for reporting sexual harassment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law's protections extend to workers who reasonably believe that they faced illegal discrimination or harassment, even if they did not.

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A federal judge in Atlanta had said Alkins' complaint about the incident was not protected by federal anti-bias law because the single kiss was not "severe or pervasive."

The 11th Circuit disagreed, saying "few types of physical contact are more invasive than an open-mouthed kiss." The court cited past cases in which it had found that less severe conduct, such as unwanted massages, could reasonably be viewed as sexual harassment.

The county did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

John Wales, a lawyer for Alkins, said in an email that he was pleased with the ruling.

"The Sheriff and the lower court concluded that you can fire someone who complains unless the conduct complained about is an actionable violation of the law. This is not the standard and should not be," he said.

Alkins said in her lawsuit that she had notified a supervisor about the unwanted kiss, which had happened years earlier, after she was told she would be transferred to the county jail where the lieutenant worked.

An investigation into her claim was inconclusive, and Alkins was then told the department had lost confidence in her "ability to effectively provide leadership" and fired her, according to court filings.

The 11th Circuit panel included Circuit Judges Charles Wilson, Andrew Brasher and R. Lanier Anderson.

The case is Alkins v. Sheriff of Gwinnett County, 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-13746.

For Alkins: John Wales of Law Offices of John D. Wales

For the sheriff's office: Elizabeth Taylor of the Gwinnett County Law Department

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.