Pipeline co must face premises liability claim in sex harassment case

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  • Pipeline operator can be sued for premises liability by contractor's employee
  • But company was not plaintiff's joint employer under anti-bias laws

(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday said an oil pipeline operator cannot be held liable for the alleged sexual harassment of a contractor's employee under anti-discrimination laws, but revived her bid to bring fresh claims against the company stemming from its control of the worksite.

A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said plaintiff Jessica Adams had sufficiently alleged that Alpha Crude Connector LLC (ACC) controlled the New Mexico site where she worked for C3 Pipeline Construction Inc, so she could file an amended complaint accusing the company of premises liability.

Under New Mexico law, a company that hires a contractor is generally not liable for injuries to the contractor's employees. But there is an exception to that rule when the company controls the premises on which the work is being performed.

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But the 10th Circuit affirmed a judge's dismissal of her claim that ACC, now a part of Plains All American Pipeline LP, was her "joint employer" with C3 under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a comparable New Mexico law. ACC lacked the power to hire, fire, discipline and supervise Adams, and had no control over the C3 employees who allegedly harassed her, the panel said.

Adams' lawyer, Timothy Atler of Atler Law Firm, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Paula Maynes of Miller Stratvert, who represents ACC parent Plains All American Pipeline, said she was disappointed that Adams will be allowed to file an amended complaint but said she believes that the premises liability claim would ultimately fall short.

Adams claims three men she worked with pressured her to have sex, made sexually explicit comments, groped her and sent her pornographic images. A jury in 2019 awarded Adams $55 million on her claims against C3, which was lowered to about $20,000 by U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales.

Prior to the trial against C3, Gonzales had dismissed Adams' claims against ACC. The judge also denied her motion to file an amended complaint, saying it would be futile because he had already determined that ACC did not control Adams' working conditions.

The 10th Circuit panel on Tuesday said Gonzales had ignored evidence offered up by Adams involving ACC's control over the worksite, and her claim that she had complained about the alleged harassment to ACC and was told to "suck it up."

The case is Adams v. C3 Pipeline Construction Inc, 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 20-2055.

For Adams: Timothy Atler of Atler Law Firm

For Plains: Kelsey Green of Miller Stratvert

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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.