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Ninth Circuit Reinstates Arizona Prison Guards' Sexual Harassment Lawsuit against Private Prison Operator

by Lonnie Burton

On March 14, 2016, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of appeals vacated a district court ruling which dismissed a class action sexual harassment complaint brought by female Arizona prison guards. The appellate court held that the district court erred in dismissing the lawsuit on several bases, including the fact that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) could maintain a class action suit on behalf of employees on a supplementary issue that was alleged within 300 days of the first act of misconduct.

Alice Hancock was employed as a prison guard at the Arizona State Prison, Florence West Facility. That prison is run by a private company, Geo Corporation, who operates two prisons in Arizona. On June 5, 2009, Hancock filed an EEOC complaint alleging that Sgt. Robert Kroen had grabbed her crotch and pinched her vagina. Three of Hancock's co-workers then complained that Kroen made offensive comments. Geo did not immediately take action to remedy the harassment, but instead placed Hancock on 15 days unpaid leave during the "internal investigation." Three months later, Geo fired Hancock.

The EEOC directed Geo to provide information regarding complaints of sexual harassment against Kroen, and they responded with the names of five additional women. When the EEOC concluded its investigation it found that Hancock's allegations were substantiated, and that female guards at Florence were subjected to a hostile work environment, and that Geo did not take reasonable steps to prevent or correct the harassment,

When settlement -- or conciliation -- talks between the EEOC and Geo proved unsuccessful, the EEOC filed civil complaints against Geo for creating a "sex-based hostile work environment and sexual harassment," as well as engaging retaliatory actions in terminating Hancock's employment.

After the suit was filed, additional plaintiffs came forward with more allegations of sexual harassment at Florence. Hancock eventually settled her claims with Geo, but the EEOC proceeded with the claims of the other plaintiffs. Upon motions by Geo, however, the federal district court dismissed the lawsuit, holding, among other things, that the EEOC failed to seek a settlement with Geo prior to filing suit for any employee other than Hancock, and that the claims of the additional plaintiffs came after the 300-day period following the date of the initial allegation. The EEOC appealed, and the Ninth Circuit reversed.

The court found that the EEOC properly attempted to conciliate the claims against Geo because the allegations of the additional plaintiffs were similar enough to Hancock's as to be the same, and the EEOC was not required in a a class action suit to conciliate on behalf of each and every plaintiff individually.

As to the 300-day period for filing new allegations, the court ruled that the time limit is inapplicable in cases where the new charge of misconduct "is already encompassed" in the original claim, or if the new claim "is like or reasonably related to the initial charge."

Finally, the Ninth Circuit found that sufficient evidence existed for a separate hostile work environment claim to proceed on behalf of Sofia Hines, another Florence guard, and that the district court improperly dismissed her claim on summary judgment. See: State of Arizona ex rel. Horne v. The Geo Group, Inc., No 13-16081 (9th Cir. 2016).

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Related legal case

State of Arizona ex rel. Horne v. The Geo Group, Inc.