Judge Reeves Headlines Sexual Harassment Panel

Lena Welch ‘20
New Media Editor

Judge Pamela Reeves of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee discussed the development of sexual harassment law Friday at the Law School in an event sponsored by ACS, DVP, VELLA, and VLW. Judge Reeves chronicled her career and how her early foray into sexual harassment law guided her professional development.

“I was excited to invite Judge Reeves to speak because her career is one of firsts, both for her as a female judge in the Eastern District of Tennessee and being on the frontier of sexual harassment law,” ACS Secretary Anna Rennich ’20 said. “I knew that it would be interesting to students both from an employment law perspective, but also as sort of an inspirational story for those of us interested in working on either side of tough issues.”

Judge Reeves did not set out to be a pioneer in sexual harassment law; rather, as Professor Anne Coughlin stated in her introduction, “Those were the problems that needed to be solved.”

As a young lawyer, Judge Reeves had never even heard of sexual harassment.

“I had just taken the bar exam, I had just taken Employment Discrimination Law in my 3L year, and I had no earthly clue what sexual harassment was,” Judge Reeves said.

When she began researching the topic, just two or three cases allowed women to proceed on the theory of sexual harassment. There were no federal court of appeals cases, and it was years before the Supreme Court addressed sexual harassment. But she also quickly learned that companies did not want to be the test case for what they believed to be “boys being boys.”

One of her earliest cases was against the TVA, a political powerhouse and major employer in Knoxville. She came to a resolution that satisfied her clients, and because it kept the allegations from becoming public knowledge TVA was happy. TVA agreed to adopt new policies and procedures as well as training.

“You can make a lot of money off of guys because sometimes, no offense, you guys, they do really dumb things,” Reeves told the group.

So, Judge Reeves set out to become the “sex expert” in Knoxville. But, in sexual harassment cases, it is sometimes hard to know who is telling the truth. Sexual harassment cases typically do not happen out in the open with witnesses.

“People don’t, as a rule, harass strong, confident women. They look for the people who are vulnerable. They look for the people who are not going to push back. And they look for the people who need that job . . . . They know how to manipulate the system.”

After a while, Judge Reeves was not only hired by plaintiffs but by employers. She was able to learn a lot through her opportunities to look at sexual harassment claims from both perspectives. Employers were interested in trainings to help prevent sexual harassment from happening. When Judge Reeves first began training employers, she used faxes and emails. Now, texts and Snapchat screenshots are the exhibits of sexual harassment, she noted.

One of Judge Reeves’s key takeaways from her career is that there is always job security in this area of the law because “humans function as a result of hormones as opposed to common sense.”

Judge Reeves even shared a few “war stories.” In 1987, she began working for the Tennessee Municipal League, traveling across the state to provide defense to small governmental entities and officials.

“You have never seen stupid until you start to represent elected officials in small towns all over the state of Tennessee,” Reeves chuckled.

During her time at TML, Judge Reeves expanded her duties to filing responses to EEOC complaints to avoid the mistakes or inaccurate statements that would cause trouble when TML came in at the trial stage. She also convinced TML to allow her to write amicus briefs as the case law was developing in Tennessee.

Her duties at TML also changed as the league adopted mediation because it was an inexpensive way to resolve cases. Judge Reeves utilized her federal court experience, contacts across the state, as well as her experience as a woman—most victims are female—to develop a huge mediation practice across the state. Mediation provided a good alternative for cases that people did not want to go to trial, whether because of a police chief who could not watch his mouth or because of a big company that didn’t want to risk bad outcomes.

Between 2002 and when she was appointed to the bench in 2014, Judge Reeves also served as an independent investigator. She even pointed out the benefits of the “dumbass defense.”

Judge Reeves shared a story about one of the first cases she worked on after graduating law school. It was a sexual discrimination case that she co-counseled with her first husband. During the closing argument, Judge Robert Love Taylor balked at the idea that Judge Reeves chose not to take her husband’s last name.

“So, I remain convinced that the day Judge Taylor found out that I was replacing his seat ultimately on the bench that he was probably just rolling over and over in his grave.”

Judge Reeves noted that this is an area of the law that is still developing, both in terms of retaliation claims or protecting LGBT folks. She also commented on the interesting developments happening within the judiciary to protect law clerks and clarify their obligations under ethics rules, as well as the importance of educating judges about sexual harassment.