Christian v. Umpqua Bank, 2020 WL 7777882 (9th Cir. 2020)

Jennifer Christian, a former employee of Umpqua Bank, alleged she was sexually harassed by one of the bank’s customers in violation of Title VII and Washington state law.  Among other things, the customer dropped off “small notes” stating that Christian was the “most beautiful girl he’[d] seen” and that he “would like to go on a date” with her. After Christian informed the customer that she was not interested, the customer sent her a long letter stating that she was his “dream girl” and they were “meant to be together.” Flowers and references to their being “soulmates” soon followed. Christian notified the bank manager and others in the workplace about the customer’s repeated overtures toward her, but her colleagues just warned her “to be careful.” Eventually, in response to Christian’s repeated requests, the bank closed the customer’s account and told him not to return; the bank also temporarily transferred Christian to another branch before Christian resigned based upon her doctor’s advice that it was “bad for her health to continue working at Umpqua Bank.”

Christian sued for gender discrimination and retaliation, and the district court granted the bank’s summary judgment motion. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the incidents of harassment were severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile environment even though there was a seven-month gap between them and some of the incidents did not involve direct interaction with the customer (e.g., letters and notes that were left for her or persistent inquiries that the customer made about Christian to her colleagues). The Court also held there was a triable issue of fact as to whether the bank ratified or acquiesced in the harassment in view of its “glacial response – more than half a year after the stalking began – [which] was too little too late.”