Court reverses ruling in Broward County School Board sexual harassment suit

By Elizabeth Alt | Sep 16, 2018

WEST PALM BEACH — Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals has ruled that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to the School Board of Broward County, in a case alleging sexual harassment by a Broward County school principal.

Judge Burton C. Conner wrote the opinion on Sept. 12, stating that a former school guidance counselor had alleged “sufficient summary judgment evidence as to all four factors to defeat summary judgment” in her suit alleging she was sexually harassed by the principal of the school.  

Judges Robert M. Gross and Mark W. Klingensmith concurred in the decision.

Former school guidance counselor Cherellda Branch-McKenzie claims that in August 2011, the principal of the school began verbal and physical harassment that lasted two years. The suit alleges the principal made sexual comments to her about her body and appearance, called her at home and asked her to send pictures or engage in video chat, touched her buttocks numerous times, and touched her neck, asking to kiss her.  


Florida Fourth District Court Judge Robert M. Gross  

In September 2012, Branch-McKenzie reported the harassment to the School Board’s Equal Employment Opportunity office, stating that she had asked the principal to stop but he “would blow it off, telling her that he was going to humble [her] and in his country women bough [sic] down.” The plaintiff claims that the harassment did not stop even after the principal knew about the plaintiff’s harassment report.

Branch-McKenzie filed a five-count claim of sexual harassment and hostile work environment against the school board. In deposition, the employees stated that they had “witnessed the Principal act inappropriately towards the Employee,” that they had also been harassed by the principal, and that the principal referenced his previous sexual harassment issue, saying he had to stop “messing with (Employee) or he  was “going to be sent back on administrative duty.”

The principal admitted in his deposition that “he had previously been accused of, and subject to an investigation for, sexual harassment” and had been suspended for 10 days. The School Board argued in their motion for summary judgment that “even assuming all of the facts as alleged by the Employee as true, the actions described were not sufficiently pervasive enough to support a sexual harassment claim.”

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the school board as to all five counts of Branch-McKenzie’s complaint, finding that, “As a matter of law, the claims made by the [Employee] . . . are not the type that are sufficiently pervasive so as to constitute a hostile work environment.”

Noting that the plaintiff alleged more than 20 incidents that happened both at the school as well as outside of school over a period of two years, Judge Conner stated that the alleged facts in the case showed the behaviors were severe, physically threatening or humiliating, unreasonable interference with job performance, and frequent enough that they of  “should have been resolved by a jury decision, rather than a summary judgment decision.”

Judge Conner affirmed the first four counts of the claim but reversed the final count alleging a hostile work environment sexual harassment claim, finding that the trial court erred in concluding that “as a matter of law the alleged behavior was not pervasive enough to support a hostile work environment sexual harassment claim.”

The plaintiff is represented by Melissa C. Mihok of CPLS, P.A., Orlando.

The School Board of Broward County is represented by Debra Potter Klauber and Kenneth J. Miller of Haliczer, Pettis & Schwamm, P.A.

District Court of Appeal for the State of Florida, Fourth District, Case Number 4D18-379

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