Federal judiciary defends internal sexual harassment review process

A bronze statue titled "Justice Delayed, Justice Denied" depicting a figure of Justice is seen on the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • Judiciary urges 4th Circuit to uphold dismissal of former public defender's lawsuit
  • Current and former judiciary employees in amicus brief back plaintiff

Nov 4 (Reuters) - The federal judiciary is urging an appeals court to reject a high-profile bid by a former public defender in North Carolina to revive a lawsuit claiming its internal process for addressing sexual harassment reports violated her constitutional rights.

The judiciary in a brief filed on Wednesday with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it was committed to providing a workplace free from harassment and had adopted processes to hear and address allegations of misconduct.

Those policies provided the proper way for the plaintiff, known only as "Jane Roe," to address her allegations of harassment, and that process rather than a lawsuit was the proper way for her to seek relief, the judiciary contended.

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In a lawsuit filed in 2020, she had claimed that a higher-ranking federal defender sexually harassed her, including by constantly "shadowing" her and implying that she would be promoted if they had sex.

She had initially reported harassment and related workplace concerns through the 4th Circuit's internal dispute resolution process but said it failed to provide a fair and meaningful review of her claim, leading her to sue.

A judge dismissed the case, finding Roe failed to back up her claims that the judiciary's lack of meaningful procedures for handling her complaints violated her rights and that individual defendants named in her case enjoyed immunity.

Because the 4th Circuit itself is a party in the lawsuit, all of its judges are recused from hearing her appeal, and U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts assigned it to a three-judge panel with members from the 6th, 8th and 10th Circuits.

In Wednesday's brief, filed by the U.S. Justice Department on behalf of the U.S. Judicial Conference and the 4th Circuit, the judiciary argued the judge reached the correct decision.

"The Judiciary is firmly committed to providing all employees with a workplace free from discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, and has adopted comprehensive procedures to address and remedy allegations of workplace misconduct, including the allegations at issue here," it said.

That process, based on a model the Judicial Conference first developed in 1980, allows employees to report misconduct, request counseling, participate in mediation and take their case to a judicial hearing officer and the Judicial Council.

Jeannie Suk Gersen, a professor at Harvard Law School who represents Roe, did not respond to a request for comment.

The case came amid ongoing attention to how the judiciary addresses judicial misconduct allegations, following claims of harassment against several prominent federal judges amid the rise of the #MeToo movement.

In August, more than two dozen current and former judiciary employees filed a brief supporting Roe, saying their workplaces were rife with discrimination, harassment and bullying, but the "insulated" court system had largely failed to police itself.

The employees, represented by Keker Van Nest & Peters, said the judiciary’s current reporting procedures leave employees without real remedies and vulnerable to retaliation, while the court system's immunity from lawsuits means they lack basic workplace protections.

The case is Roe v. United States of America, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-1346.

For Roe: Jeannie Suk Gersen of Harvard Law School and Cooper Strickland

For the Judicial Conference: H. Thomas Byron III and Amanda Mundell of the U.S. Department of Justice

Read more:

Fed court workers say judiciary mishandles bias, harassment complaints

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Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.