O''Brien v. The Middle East Forum, No. 21-2646 (3d Cir. 2023)Annotate this Case
O’Brien worked at Forum, a think tank, from 2016-2020. She served as its controller and was responsible for human resources tasks. In 2019, O’Brien sued Forum, its President, and its Director (Roman). She alleged a hostile work environment under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000e, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. Trial testimony indicated that Roman had made sexual advances toward O’Brien and other female employees. In Title VII cases where no tangible adverse employment action was taken, an employer may escape liability by raising an affirmative defense that the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior, and the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventative or corrective opportunities provided The district court held that O’Brien was not entitled to a jury instruction that this defense is unavailable where the harasser functions as the alter ego or proxy of the employer.
The Third Circuit upheld a verdict against O'Brien. Although the affirmative defense is not available in an "alter ego" situation, the district court’s refusal to so instruct the jury here was harmless because the jury found that O’Brien was not subjected to sexual harassment. The existence of an affirmative defense was therefore irrelevant.