Attorney wins right to sue Charlotte-based U.S. office for sex discrimination

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A North Carolina attorney who sued the Charlotte-based federal public defender’s office over sexual discrimination has won the right to continue her case despite limited workplace legal protections.

Her lawyer, Jeannie Suk Gersen, called the move a “crystal clear” victory for judiciary employees’ constitutional rights, The Washington Post reported.

In 2019, Caryn Strickland accused a supervising attorney of sexual harassment, saying he’d flirted with her and insinuated that he could advance her career in return for sexual favors.

Strickland says in her lawsuit she tried to use the court’s internal dispute resolution process but was “stonewalled” by office leadership, prompting her to resign in 2019 and sue the office in 2020.

The office’s top court-appointed leader, Anthony Martinez, likened her relationship with the supervising attorney to a marriage requiring compromise, she alleged in the complaint, and eventually moved her to a position that required even more contact with the attorney she’d accused.

Martinez was replaced as federal defender for the district in March. The office didn’t respond to The Charlotte Observer’s request for comment.

Strickland also couldn’t be reached for comment. But she testified before a U.S. House Judiciary Committee in March 2022 to weigh in on legislation that would strengthen protections for judiciary employees complaining of workplace harassment.

Unlike other federal government employees, federal judicial workers don’t have protections from workplace sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

But in April, a three-judge panel agreed with Strickland’s argument that judicial employees have a right to sue their employers. Their unanimous decision, which spanned 118 pages, limits Strickland’s civil remedies but backs up her right to sue over sexual discrimination in the workplace. That ruling took effect last week.

Now, the case is back before the court where Strickland originally complained. The office is free to negotiate directly with Strickland or argue in front of a local court, who’ll now be directed by the panel’s judgment that Strickland has a case.

Her allegations have also reverberated on a national scale.

Lawmakers to whom she testified in the spring said that they consider the judgment a victory for federal judicial employees who, until now, haven’t had much room to fight against gendered and sexual discrimination in their offices. They’re weighing more measures, including a separate oversight system, for future complaints.

“Congress must now step up to provide all judicial branch employees with the protections and remedies against sexual harassment and retaliation available to nearly every other public and private employee,” Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) told The Washington Post.

The committee had already passed some changes to the disciplinary process in 2019, but they didn’t apply to Strickland’s case as she’d already resigned by that spring. The previous system had been informed by strict confidentiality policies, but Judge Merrick Garland announced in 2019 that those guidelines can’t be applied to misconduct.

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