U.S. judiciary can be sued over handling of sex harassment complaint - court

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Caryn Strickland, a former public defender in the Western District of North Carolina, testifies before a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., on March 17, 2022. U.S. House of Representatives/Handout via REUTERS

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  • 4th Circuit says Strickland can pursue claims her rights were violated
  • Strickland testified before Congress last month

April 26 - A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled that a former federal public defender in North Carolina could sue the judiciary for violating her constitutional rights by being deliberately indifferent to her complaints of sexual harassment.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals partly reversed a judge's dismissal of a 2020 lawsuit by Caryn Strickland, who alleged she was sexually harassed by a superior and stonewalled in her efforts to have the judiciary address her complaint.

The Federal Public Defender's Office in the Western District of North Carolina, like others nationally, is part of the judiciary. Because the 4th Circuit itself was a defendant to the lawsuit, three judges from other circuits court heard Strickland's case.

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U.S. Circuit Judge Mary Beck Briscoe of the 10th Circuit, writing for the three-judge panel, said the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment "secures a federal judiciary employee's right to be free from sexual harassment in the workplace."

The court rejected Strickland's argument that the internal employment dispute resolution process used by the 4th Circuit like other courts to handle misconduct complaints was unconstitutional and violated her due process rights.

But Briscoe said Strickland sufficiently alleged the process was unfair in her case because the top public defender in her office was not disqualified from representing it during the review of Strickland's claims despite being accused of retaliation.

"Today’s decision is a major victory," Jeannie Suk Gersen, a professor at Harvard Law School who represents Strickland.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in a statement said the judiciary has made "significant" improvements" to its workplace conduct policies and complaint procedures and "remains committed to promoting an exemplary workplace."

The decision came a month after Strickland testified before Congress in favor of greater legal protections for the judiciary's 30,000 employees, who unlike other workers are not protected against sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

She had alleged she was sexually harassed by a superior who was constantly "shadowing" her and implied she would be promoted if she acquiesced to his sexual advances.

Strickland said she was forced to quit her job and take a judicial clerkship after complaining about sexual harassment through a flawed and biased internal process the judiciary adopted.

Her appeal had garnered the support of other judicial employees and several members of Congress including Representative Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee.

Nadler in a statement called the decision "a major victory for the rule of the law and the rights of all judicial branch employees, but it is not enough," saying Congress must pass legislation to protect judicial employees.

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

For Strickland: Jeannie Suk Gersen of Harvard Law School

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

(NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Representative Jerrold Nadler's name and to add a comment from the judiciary.)

Read more:

4th Circuit replaces federal public defender amid sexual bias lawsuit

Ex-judiciary employees describe harassment, discrimination to U.S. House panel

4th Circ. leery of challenge to federal courts' sex harassment policies

Federal judiciary defends internal sexual harassment review process

Fed court workers say judiciary mishandles bias, harassment complaints

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