AZA Expands Sexual Harassment Protection in Major Appellate Win against City of Houston 
March 15, 2022

NEW ORLEANS – The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in reversing a hostile work environment summary judgment order in a Houston firefighter’s case, set two new precedents in hostile work environment cases.  

In Melinda Abbt v. City of Houston, the panel found the firefighter did not need to experience harassment in real time for it to be actionable. According to the ruling, the victim still has a claim if she finds out later about what happened behind her back. This is the first time the court has ruled on that issue. 

The appellate panel also ruled that the City of Houston can be liable if a workplace harassment report goes up the chain of command but stops because a supervisor who was a recipient of the notice is also a participant in the harassment. This is also the first time the court has ruled on this issue. 

In this case, a fellow firefighter and a supervisor obtained an intimate video that Houston firefighter Melinda Abbt made for her husband. The two male firefighters secretly watched the video repeatedly for years. She did not find out for years that they had somehow obtained the video from her private computer, and she never learned who else may have seen it. On finally learning about their access to the video, she understandably was quite shaken and needed unpaid leave and counseling, especially when the city refused to promise she would not have to work next to the men in the future.  

“We are thrilled for our client that the federal appellate court saw how badly she was treated and created two new and well-founded precedents while sending her case back to the district court for a trial,” said Kelsi Stayart White, the AZA appellate lawyer who argued the case. The trial will be handled by AZA co-founder Joe Ahmad and associate Jordan Warshauer. 

The court said the male firefighters’ conduct was “disgraceful” and is actionable under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The court noted the City of Houston conceded at oral argument that Abbt’s work environment was subjectively hostile. 

The opinion is Melinda Abbt v. City of Houston, Case No. 21-20085.

AZA is a Houston-based law firm that is home to true courtroom lawyers with a formidable track record in complex commercial litigation, including energy, healthcare, intellectual property, and business dispute cases. AZA is recognized by Chambers USA 2021 among the best in Texas commercial law and intellectual property; by U.S. News – Best Lawyers’ Best Law Firms as one of the country’s best commercial litigation firms for nine years running; has been named Litigation Department of the Year by Texas Lawyer; and was previously dubbed by Law360 a Texas Powerhouse law firm. 

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