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U.S. Courts Can Be Sued Over Sex Harassment Complaints

A federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday 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, Reuters reports. 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. Federal public defenders offices are part of the judiciary. Because the 4th Circuit itself was a defendant, three judges from other courts heard Strickland's case. Tenth Circuit Judge Mary Beck Briscoe, 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 Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts 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 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. Strickland 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 the judiciary's flawed and biased internal process. Her appeal had support of other judicial employees and members of Congress, including House Judiciary chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY).


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