A federal appeals court has reinstated the wrongful firing lawsuit of a St. Mary’s County woman, who said she was dismissed after spurning her supervisor’s sexual advances.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond said Monday that U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte did not have jurisdiction over Catherine Owen’s lawsuit when he dismissed it.
A three-judge panel of the appeals court returned the case to Messitte with orders that he send it back to Prince George’s County Circuit Court for trial.
Owen claims she was fired from the Carpenters’ District Council of Washington, D.C., in March 1996 after she complained about sexual harassment by her supervisor, Edward Shaw.
Owen claims that shortly after she came to work at the council in June 1995, Shaw began to harass her both verbally and physically and that it continued repeatedly until her dismissal.
She charged in court documents that Shaw told her that “as long as she took care of him” he would ensure that her husband, who worked as a carpenter, would receive work referrals through the council.
Her suit also claims that while they were alone in his office in November 1995, he placed his arms around her waist, pulled her toward him and said that he needed her “to stay and work as many hours as necessary to get the job done, if you know what I mean.”
In December 1995, Owen complained to a trustee of the council who said he would talk to Shaw about his conduct.
Shaw suspended Owen in February 1996, saying he had discovered “inconsistencies and misstatements in her resumes and employment history,” according to court documents. A month later, he fired her.
Owen filed a grievance with the union, but withdrew it so that she could file a lawsuit in court where “statutory remedies for sexual harassment would provide her more complete relief” than she could get in arbitration. She also sued Shaw for assault and battery in county circuit court.
The council asked to have the case moved to federal court where Messitte dismissed the wrongful firing portion of it, saying Owen had failed to go through the grievance process required by the Labor Management Relations Act.
Messitte also dismissed the assault claim against Shaw for what Owen called “imminent[ly] harmful and offensive touching.” He said the statute of limitations on her assault claim had expired but ordered her battery claim be moved to state court.
The appeals court ruled that the grievance process required by the LMRA does not pre-empt Owen’s right to sue. She did not challenge the lower court’s ruling on the assault and battery charges.
Joe Carl Ashworth, Owen’s attorney, said she is looking forward to her day in court.
“We’re pleased to be back in court. We’re looking forward to vindicating ourselves there,” said Ashworth. He said Owen is seeking about $25,000 in compensatory damages.
Attorneys for the Carpenters’ District Council could not be reached Wednesday to comment on the appeals court ruling.