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Blake v. Professional Travel Corp.

March 08, 2001


Before Schwelb, Farrell, and Reid, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Farrell, Associate Judge

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia

(Hon. Susan R. Winfield, Trial Judge)

Argued December 1, 2000

Blake appeals from an order of the trial court dismissing on the ground of forum non conveniens her complaint alleging, inter alia, sexual discrimination in violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act. We agree with Blake that the defendants have not met their burden of establishing reasons why her choice of forum should not be respected. In particular, the close factual connection between the District of Columbia and the discriminatory acts alleged, together with the absence of any genuine showing of inconvenience to the defendant-appellees, persuades us that this is not a proper case for application of the inconvenient forum doctrine. Therefore, although we recognize the deference generally accorded to the trial court on rulings of this kind, we reverse the order of dismissal and remand the case to the Superior Court for further proceedings.

I. The Allegations

For present purposes, the allegations of the complaint must be accepted as true. See Vincent v. Anderson, 621 A.2d 367, 372 (D.C. 1993). Blake's suit arises from her employment by defendant-appellee Professional Travel Corporation (PTC). A resident of Maryland at the time, Blake began working for PTC in its Arlington, Virginia office as a professional travel agent in May 1997. *fn1 PTC maintains its east coast regional headquarters in Arlington and does most of its local business from that location, but also has on-site offices and personnel at law firms and other organizations in the District of Columbia. Blake was interviewed and hired by defendant-appellee Sarah K. Boswell, a resident of the District of Columbia and Director of Operations for PTC's Arlington office at the time.

Blake alleges that in June 1998, Phyllis Reagan, a corporate Vice- President of PTC at the Arlington office, made sexual advances toward her at a bar in Virginia while in the company of other PTC employees. On succeeding occasions, Blake rejected further overtures from Reagan and received assurances from her that she would not be fired for doing so. Beginning in July 1998, according to the complaint, Boswell then engaged in a pattern of unwanted sexual advances and contact with Blake. Boswell initially scheduled an appointment with Blake, who was a registered massage therapist, for a massage at Boswell's home in the District of Columbia. After the massage the pair had lunch at a restaurant before returning to Boswell's home, where Boswell began fondling Blake's breasts and genitals. The two ultimately engaged in various sexual acts. On succeeding days Blake told Boswell that she did not want a sexual relationship with her, and Boswell responded by harassing and humiliating her in front of other PTC employees.

During the course of the next year, Boswell made numerous demands that Blake accompany her on lunch dates and other social events, including camping and ski trips. Blake acquiesced in these demands because Boswell had told her "explicitly and implicitly" that she "needed to do so to keep [her] job at PTC." In February 1999, Boswell invited Blake to a bar and restaurant in the District to discuss management-level positions that Blake had applied for at PTC, including one as on-site travel manager at two District law firms. Boswell then invited Blake to her home where she forced herself upon Blake sexually, causing Blake to have to push her way past Boswell and leave the house. Blake was ultimately denied the promotions she was seeking.

Blake further alleges that from July 1998 through June 1999 Boswell "continuously and repeatedly" telephoned her from Boswell's home in the District. In these calls, which often occurred five to seven times a week, Boswell demanded that Blake engage in sexual acts with her and accompany her socially to various locations. In one such conversation, Boswell stated that "as long as there's an us, you'll have a job at PTC," and in other conversations threatened changes in Blake's work schedule if she did not acquiesce in the sexual demands. In several phone conversations before Boswell rejected Blake for the on-site manager positions, Boswell told her that she was not "cooperating," and Blake replied that "[Boswell's] idea of cooperation included acts of sex and social companionship[,] which . . . were unwanted and unwelcome." *fn2

During the same one-year period, Blake accompanied Boswell to a variety of locations in the District where Boswell demanded sexual relations and engaged in unwanted touching of Blake's person. *fn3 Meanwhile, the telephone calls from Boswell's home continued, showing a "marked increase" in June 1999 when Boswell demanded that Blake accompany her on a camping trip and other activities, which Blake refused. Finally, in June, Blake demanded that Boswell "should forever and finally cease from pressuring [her] for sexual favors."

On or about June 30, 1999, at a meeting attended by Blake, Boswell and Lynnette Heiges, the Human Resources Representative for PTC in Arlington, Boswell handed Blake a termination letter which she had written. The letter stated that Blake had been on probation since May 19, 1999, because of her inability to effectively service the account of The Federation of State Board Physical Therapy, a PTC client for which Blake was the primary designated travel agent. The letter purported to base Blake's termination on PTC's loss of this account in June 1999, and indicated that Blake's performance since May 19, 1999, was the reason the account had been lost. When Heiges mentioned that there was no probation letter in Blake's personnel file, Reagan became involved in the situation. She called corporate headquarters in Colorado and was informed that there was not a probation letter in Blake's file. Nevertheless, about a week later, Reagan left a voice message on Blake's home answering machine stating that she was going to abide by Boswell's decision to terminate Blake.

On the basis of these allegations, Blake sued PTC and Boswell in the Superior Court for sexual harassment, creation of a hostile workplace, and retaliation under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, D.C. Code ยงยง 1-2501, et seq. ("DCHRA"), as well as for intentional infliction of emotional distress and interference with prospective economic advantage. The defendants jointly moved to dismiss, primarily on the grounds that the alleged discriminatory and retaliatory acts, especially Blake's termination, had not taken place in the District of Columbia, thus depriving the court of subject ...

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