Industrial Rehabilitation Medicine, P.A.
DECISION OF THE COMMISSION
This complaint presents the unfortunate story of an office romance between a physician and his office manager. What one witness described as a "torrid affair" ultimately degenerated into an ugly conclusion that resulted in the complainant losing her job.
Gail Sanborn (now Donovan) was hired as a secretary by Industrial Rehabilitation Associates (IRM) of Gilford, N.H. on July 29, 1985. The owner of IRM and a companion Massachusetts corporation is Dr. Marcos U. Ramos. At the time of her hire, Ms. Sanborn was married and the mother of three children. Six weeks later. Dr. Ramos, the father of three children, entered into his second marriage. Dr. Ramos terminated Ms. Sanborn's employment on July 8, 1993.
Ms. Sanborn alleges that Dr. Ramos engaged in two forms of sexual harassment against her: quid pro quo and hostile work environment. RSA 354-A:7, V, states as follows:
"Harassment on the basis of sex constitutes unlawful sex discrimination. Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when:
(a) Submission to such conduct is made either implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment ;
(b) Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual; or
(c) Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment."
Among the multitude of disputed facts in this case is the genesis of the personal relationship between Ms. Sanborn and Dr. Ramos. Ms. Sanborn describes declining initial advances before engaging in sexual activity in January or February, 1986. Dr. Ramos dates their first act of intimacy as November 21, 1985 during a medical conference in Lebanon, N.H. Ms. Sanborn denies that a sexual encounter took place on that date, but in subsequent years, both parties treated that date as their anniversary, marking the occasion by the exchange of cards and gifts.
What ensued was an intense seven-year relationship with both physical and emotional dimensions. On many occasions, each expressed undying and everlasting love for the other, as the numerous notes and letters admitted as exhibits attest. They worked together, they traveled together, and at times, they lived together as husband and wife. Although the affair was kept secret from their respective spouses at the beginning, by 1989, both Mrs. Ramos and Mr. Sanborn knew of their relationship.
Although the depth of feeling was intense, the relationship was not always smooth. Each party contemplated terminating the relationship at one time or another. In 1991, while vacationing in Venezuela with his wife and some medical colleagues. Dr. Ramos was stricken with heart problems. Upon his return to Boston for treatment, he was very distressed that Ms. Sanborn did not cancel a family vacation to be by his side. He was depressed and in "tough shape" emotionally. He told Ms. Sanborn, "we don't have a relationship if you can't be here for me." Ms. Sanborn responded in a letter dated September 24, 1991 by writing, "My biggest fear these last months, is that you were going to leave me. My heart begged you, to let me be the only one you needed." The parties subsequently reconciled.
In order to prevail on the hostile work environment claim, the complainant must show that she was subjected to unwelcome, offensive conduct or behavior which was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create an abusive work environment. Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 106 S. Ct. 2399, 91 L. Ed. 2d 49 (1986).
One of complainant's allegations to support a finding of hostile work environment is that another secretary, Nicole Moyer was subjected to sexual advances. Ms. Moyer testified that she called in sick on a day when she was not and that upon her return to the office; Dr. Ramos offered to examine her "inflamed throat". Ms. Moyer alleges that he exposed her breasts by opening her shirt and feeling around the tops of her breasts. The Commission ascribes little credibility to her testimony because of her admission that she lied about the reason for her absence and continued to expound on her lie regarding her absence to her employer (i.e. sore throat). Even if she were believed, there was no consequence or retaliation as the result of her rebuffing his advance, nor was it repeated.
Ms. Sanborn alleges several acts of violence toward her by Dr. Ramos but was unable to produce any corroboration. Complainant testified that she injured her hand in June of 1993 during a struggle with respondent at his house. She stated that he took her car keys and her clothes to prevent her from leaving.
Complainant called Arthur Minery, formerly employed as a physical therapy aide by respondent, to verify her injury. Mr. Minery did not initially recall treating her but later remembered putting a cold pack and an Ace bandage on her inflamed wrist. He did not know the cause of the injury.
The complainant also testified that Dr. Ramos slapped her across the mouth causing cuts and bleeding during a trip to Canada. She stated that the slap occurred because she had smiled at a hotel doorman and the respondent interpreted the smile as flirting. She further testified that a co-worker, Claudia Wright, who, with her husband, accompanied them on the trip, asked the complainant what had happened. The complainant testified that she told Ms. Wright that Dr. Ramos had slapped her because he thought she was flirting.
Claudia Wright was subpoenaed by the respondent. When asked whether she observed any injuries to complainant's face, she said no. She further testified that she did not recall the complainant saying that she had been slapped.
The parties vigorously dispute which one wanted to terminate the relationship in July of 1993. On the facts presented, one could reasonably find that Ms. Sanborn wanted to end it because of her new relationship with the man who would become her husband. One could also find that Dr. Ramos was motivated to end it because of his sense of having been betrayed and deceived. In this particular case, the initiator of the break-up is less important than the impact of the break-up. Ms. Sanborn wanted to continue to hold her job as office manager but Dr. Ramos concluded that the parties could not maintain a professional working relationship given the unfriendly demise of their personal relationship.
It is important to distinguish this case from the situation where a subordinate employee is required to provide sexual favors as a condition of employment, and when the sexual favors end so does the employment. Here the relationship was consensual as Ms. Sanborn concedes in her original sworn complaint. The multitude of cards and letters she sent to Dr. Ramos leads one to the inescapable conclusion that she was either deeply in love with him or repeatedly misrepresented her feelings. The Commission believes the former.
That this was no mere sexual affair is clear from Dr. Ramos' testimony that Ms. Sanborn was the "love of his life" and his intent that this was to be a long term relationship is bolstered by his marriage proposal, his establishment of a fund to educate Ms. Sanborn's daughter and his bequest to Ms. Sanborn in his will of 30% of his accounts receivable, estimated to be $200,000. His family was well aware of their relationship because they visited his family in Puerto Rico and his family visited them in N.H.
That Ms. Sanborn wanted to keep her job in the face of the emotional break-up is understandable. Her salary of $40,000 and benefits including a car and company credit card would be difficult to replace and she was responsible for the support of her family. Although the current office manager is paid far less, by all accounts Ms. Sanborn performed her job very well.
This case is not about sexual harassment but how to handle the break-up of an intense personal relationship between two people who worked together. This is not a case of discrimination based on gender, of an employer who sought out a subordinate to use as a sexual mistress but of a deep personal relationship which ended painfully. Under these circumstances, the law does not require a continuation of the employment relationship. Huebschen v. Dept. of Health and Social Services, 716 F.2d 1167 (1983); Keppler v. Hinsdale T.P. High School Dist., 715 F. Supp. 862 (N.D. III. 1989).
Accordingly, the Commission rules that the facts of this case do not support a finding that sexual harassment occurred.
Commissioner John J. Coughlin, Esquire
May 6. 1997
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