Court Case: Sokol v. St. Louis Community College

Case History

Kathy Sokol, former chairperson of the Department of Hospitality Studies/Tourism at St. Louis Community College, sued the institution for sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and retaliation.

Sokol was hired in 1992 as chair of the department of hospitality studies/tourism at St. Louis Community College, Forest Park campus. As chair, she constructed and dedicated a model new building for the department and helped the department attain an outstanding reputation in the St. Louis community and beyond.

In March 1999, Sokol became aware of sexually inappropriate language and comments by a male faculty member of the department. He described the new building in sexually suggestive terms and called a female student a “fucking bitch” during class as well as making other inappropriate comments to faculty and students. Sokol confronted the faculty member about his conduct, but he refused to modify it. Sokol then made a formal complaint to the college, and in November 1999 she filed a formal grievance with the college. The college returned the unprocessed grievance to Sokol the same day, stating that an investigation was being conducted and she would be kept advised of the status.

The college failed to conduct an investigation for several months. In the absence of any indication that the college took the matter seriously, the faculty member against whom Sokol filed charges began to retaliate against her. The college’s failure to respond to Sokol’s complaint combined with the tension created by the faculty member’s conduct created a hostile work environment for Sokol. She experienced emotional distress including sleeplessness and anxiety. Because of the harassment, Sokol went on sick leave in November 1999 and did not return to work until February 2000.

Upon her return to work, Sokol found three full-time male faculty members in her department united against her and an administration that would not support her. The administration did not allow Sokol to teach any classes during the spring semester, personal items in her office were removed or damaged, and the male faculty members shunned and threatened her. Sokol was forced to move her office to another building because the college could not ensure her safety.

In April 2000 the college removed Sokol as chair of the department. The faculty and administration refused to inform her of meetings and important developments in the department, changed the time of the class she had taught for 10 years without consulting her first, and required her to complete a request for leave when she was absent from campus, although male instructors were not asked to do so. The college also failed and refused to respond to Sokol’s questions, e-mail messages, and memoranda regarding her job and the operations of the department.

Sokol filed a lawsuit in federal district court in March 2001, alleging sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. In October 2002, a jury found that the college and two male defendants abridged Sokol’s First Amendment rights to report sexual harassment when they retaliated against her for reporting such incidents. Sokol was awarded a total of $55,000 in damages.

Following the trial, the college continued to retaliate against Sokol, adding further to the hostile work environment already present. The college and Sokol agreed that she would be transferred to another campus in a non-faculty position. Following Sokol’s relocation to the Meramec campus, the college demanded as part of the relocation agreement that Sokol be prohibited from publicly speaking about her suit. Sokol refused and was subsequently moved back to the Forest Park campus in another non-faculty position.

In March 2003, a court ordered Sokol back to the Meramec campus immediately, and further ordered that Sokol would not have any restrictions on her ability to speak publicly about her suit.

Key Case Issues

Sex discrimination, retaliation, sexual harassment