Judge doesn’t have qualified immunity for alleged sex harassment, 3rd Circuit says

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A federal appeals court has ruled that a Pennsylvania judge does not have qualified immunity for allegedly coercing a probation officer into sexual relations and continuing to harass her when the relationship ended.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Philadelphia ruled Aug. 24 against Judge Thomas Doerr of Butler County, Pennsylvania, on all but one of his qualified immunity claims, report Law360, TribLive.com and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The probation officer’s lawsuit alleged she was an Allegheny County probation officer when Doerr began repeatedly asking her to meet him at his chambers. He allegedly discussed hiring her in Butler County on the night that a sexual relationship began.

The probation officer said she wanted to work in Butler County because her hometown is there. She got the Butler County job a few months later in summer 2005, according to her suit. Doerr allegedly began inviting the probation officer to his chambers over the years that followed. The sexual relationship ended in 2009.

After that, the probation officer said, she was denied her own office, overtime opportunities and the ability to supervise other probation officers in the field. The probation officer eventually married a Butler County colleague, who was also a probation officer in Butler County. He allegedly was harassed and pushed into retirement by Butler County administrators, according to the suit.

The probation officer had sued for violation of Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, alleging sex discrimination in violation of the equal protection clause and retaliation in violation of her First Amendment right to complain to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She also claimed violation of her association rights when the judge sought to impose a sexual relationship.

The appeals court allowed the probation officer’s claims for sex discrimination, a hostile work environment and retaliation. But it denied her right of association claim. The appeals court also denied the association claim as construed by the federal trial judge to allege that Doerr interfered with the probation officer’s relationship with her boyfriend and now husband.

The 3rd Circuit said the allowed claims allege violation of clearly established rights.

“We have been clear that Section 1983 shares the same elements for discrimination purposes as a Title VII action,” the appeals court said.

That includes claims for a hostile work environment, even though the 3rd Circuit has not previously recognized such claims under Section 1983, the court said.

Judge Thomas Hardiman, an appointee of President George W. Bush, wrote the opinion. Hardiman was previously on President Donald Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court short list.

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