May 5, 2022

The Fourth Circuit’s landmark ruling recognizes federal judiciary employees’ right to work in an environment free from sexual harassment.

On April 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a ruling in Strickland v. United States of America et al. that revived a former federal public defender’s fight against workplace sexual harassment at the federal judiciary.

Willkie submitted a pro bono amicus brief in support of plaintiff and appellant Caryn Devins Strickland on behalf of 45 public interest, gender justice and civil rights organizations. The brief was led by the Purple Campaign, the National Women's Law Center and Legal Momentum, with Willkie serving as pro bono counsel. The brief contended that the district court erred in dismissing the case and that Strickland’s constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment were violated when she tried to pursue sex discrimination and retaliation claims through the federal judiciary’s employment dispute resolution (EDR) plan. As a judiciary employee, Strickland was uniquely exempt from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the traditional avenue for bringing a workplace harassment lawsuit.

In its decision, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court in part, holding that Strickland’s Fifth Amendment due process claim adequately alleges an as-applied challenge to the EDR plan. The Court also concluded that Strickland’s Fifth Amendment equal protection claim adequately alleges a violation of her right to be free from sex discrimination in light of the lack of other avenues of relief for federal judiciary employees. The opinion is a timely win that advances a higher-level conversation regarding the much-needed legislative protections for employees of the federal judiciary.

The Willkie team included partner Michael Gottlieb and associates Michaela Connolly and Kristin Bender, who served as Counsel of Record on the brief.

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