Crystal Henley enrolled in the Kansas City Police Academy in September 2005. By November 8, she was forced to leave and was not able to complete her training to become a police officer. During her short time at the Academy, Henley claims she was treated more harshly than male trainees, subject to sexual harassment, and even physical assault.
Almost five years later, in October 2010 Henley filed a lawsuit against the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners and several of the employees and officials of the police academy, alleging sex discrimination and harassment in violation of her right to equal protection under the Constitution. The defendants asked the court to dismiss the suit because Henley had failed to first file an administrative charge with the EEOC, as is required to pursue a discrimination and harassment claim under Title VII. The reason she could not file an EEOC charge, of course, was because too much time had passed—a complainant has only 300 days after the alleged discriminatory conduct. The District Court agreed with the defendants that Henley failed to exhaust her administrative remedies, reasoning that Henley could not “circumvent Title VII requirements by only pleading violations of the Equal Protection Clause [of the Constitution].”
The Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of Henley’s gender discrimination claims. (See ruling here) While acknowledging that Title VII procedures must be followed for violations of its terms, in Henley’s case, she was relying upon the Equal Protection Clause as the source of her right to be free from gender based discrimination. If a right is secured by the Constitution independent of Title VII, the Court reasoned, a plaintiff does not have to rely upon Title VII’s remedies to pursue such a claim.
The Court did not find that Henley actually asserted a plausible claim for gender discrimination based upon the Equal Protection clause. The case was remanded back to the district court to consider that question. Actually proving the defendants violated her Constitutional rights may be an uphill battle. Nonetheless, this ruling opens new doors gender based discrimination claims for public employees. The most significant practical impact is that potential claims once considered stale because more than 300 days had passed may have new life because of longer limitations periods for Constitutional claims. Public employers should be alert that this case presents yet another employment risk when taking adverse action against employees.