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Boeing Worker Gets Sex Harassment Trial Over Anonymous Messages

May 16, 2022, 3:05 PM

Boeing Co. may have failed to adequately respond to anonymous notes and emails a female former software engineer received, creating a hostile work environment for her and subjecting her to retaliation for complaining about the harassment, a Phoenix federal judge ruled.

The first note was left on Erin Rippstein’s desk in December 2015, the US District Court for the District of Arizona said. It contained lewd comments about her clothing and body. A similar note was then left for her in April 2018, and three months later she learned that a photograph of her was missing from a co-worker’s work cubicle, the court said.

Rippstein received a threatening email “from an unfamiliar non-Boeing email address” in October 2018. It told her to quit within two weeks if she knew what was good for her and her family, the court said.

Boeing launched an investigation and rerouted Rippstein’s email to a trace box. Two more threatening emails were sent to her in November and December 2018, which Boeing uncovered after the fact and told Rippstein about in February and January 2019, respectively, the court said.

A jury could find that amounted to sexual harassment, Judge Steven P. Logan said May 13. That’s so even disregarding the December 2015 note, which was too remote in time to be considered part of the same pattern of abuse, the judge said.

That the emails threatened Rippstein’s family, including her daughter, is enough to tie them to her status as a woman, the court said. Together with the April 2018 sexually explicit note, that would support a jury finding the harassment was motivated by sex, the court said.

A trial could also show it was severe enough to violate Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Arizona job bias law, Logan said.

Boeing’s delay in uncovering the last two emails could convince a jury its response was lacking even though the company did investigate and tried without success to identify the perpetrator or perpetrators, the judge said.

The company’s decisions to install a camera in Rippstein’s cubicle for a period of months and covert software that recorded all activity on her computer could be seen as retaliation, the court said.

Those actions could dissuade a reasonable worker from complaining about harassment, it said.

Rippstein failed with her other claims, Logan said.

Workplace Advocates represents Rippstein. Perkins Coie LLP represents Boeing.

The case is Rippstein v. Boeing Co., 2022 BL 167131, D. Ariz., No. 2:20-cv-02216, 5/13/22.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Carmen Castro-Pagán at ccastro-pagan@bloomberglaw.com