Category Archives: Sexual Harassment

It May Be A New World For Sexual Harassment, But Many Old Rules Still Apply

In the weeks since allegations began to surface regarding the sexually predatory behavior of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, sexual harassment allegations (sometimes admitted and sometimes disputed) against powerful, prominent men have been a daily feature of the headlines, involving Oscar-winning actors, sitting and would-be senators, talk show hosts, and numerous other high profile figures. Allegations against the both the current President of the United States and one of his predecessors, while not new, have been the subject of renewed focus.

On social media, the “#MeToo” campaign has featured numerous women coming forward with their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. While the effect of these developments is still evolving, clearly there have been changes in how sexual harassment is perceived and understood, particularly when the alleged perpetrator is not only powerful, but famous. That being said, for an employer assessing potential liability, has the legal landscape for sexual harassment and related claims really changed all that much?

The impacts of this explosion of high profile episodes is potentially far reaching, even for employers far outside the political, entertainment, and media arenas where so many of the recent cases have emerged. Public awareness of sexual harassment issues in general is certainly more pronounced. In many (but not all) situations, the public has treated the allegations as credible, even when raised years or decades after the fact. Not surprisingly, there have also been downsides to the recent uproar, including regrettable attempts to blame or attack victims who have come forward. In one bizarre episode in connection with an ongoing political campaign, a woman apparently attempted to plant false allegations of harassment in the Washington Post, precisely so that they could be shown as false, thus undermining the credibility of the Post and, by implication, of other women whose accusations had earlier been reported there.

But for employers, whether they are high profile media outlets or corner drug stores, sexual harassment involves legal duties and the risk of liability if those duties are not met. Those duties haven’t really changed. The law governing sexual harassment has been developed in state and federal courts for several decades. While the law continues to evolve in certain areas, the basic legal framework and key procedural requirements are well-established. When an employer is actually sued for sexual harassment, those rules, including mundane boring procedural requirements, can be the key to winning or losing the case. Two recent decisions illustrate the fact that the old rules still apply:

In Tudor v. SE. Okla. State Univ., in the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, the plaintiff’s allegations implicated some cutting edge issues, but the case was decided using fundamental precepts of employment discrimination law. The plaintiff, a college professor, contended that Southeastern Oklahoma State denied her tenure application and then fired her because of her transgender status (she was transitioning from male to female). She also claimed that the University maintained a hostile environment, and that she was retaliated against for raising concerns in the first place.

The University moved for summary judgment, but the court denied the motion. First, regarding a hostile environment claim, the issue was whether the plaintiff alleged a sufficient number of incidents, with sufficient severity, to establish “a work environment permeated with intimidation and ridicule.” In other words, was the environment bad enough to support a legal claim? The plaintiff relied not only on sporadic insults and comments, but also on the fact that every day over the course of a four-year period she had restrictions on which restroom she could use, how she could dress, and what make-up she could wear. She also noted that administrators persisted in using a male pronoun to refer to her even after she considered herself to be female. The court found that that was sufficiently pervasive to survive summary judgment and preserve her hostile environment claims for trial. The court also rejected a defense based on plaintiff’s alleged failure to take advantage of preventive and corrective opportunities at the University. The plaintiff successfully countered this argument by noting that at the time, the University did not have policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of transgender status. Therefore, there was no effective internal redress available to her.

The court also denied summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claim that the tenure denial and subsequent termination were discriminatory. The court had decided in a previous ruling that transgender status is protected under Title VII. In evaluating the evidence of discrimination, the court applied the familiar three-part framework: (1) plaintiff must demonstrate a prima facie case; (2) the employer must provide evidence of a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the employment action; and (3) plaintiff must provide evidence that the asserted legitimate reason is actually a pretext for discrimination. The primary dispute concerned evidence of pretext, which the plaintiff satisfied by showing substantial procedural irregularities in the tenure decision, including a refusal to state reasons for the denial of tenure and use of a backdated letter to elaborate on rationales for the tenure denial.

Finally, with respect to the retaliation claim, the court found sufficient facts to show protected conduct followed by an adverse employment action. The application of Title VII and other gender discrimination laws to transgender status is a new and disputed legal issue, but the framework used to analyze such claims is well-established, and the court applied it to determine that the case would go forward.

In another recent case, Durand v. District of Columbia Government, decided by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the employer prevailed, also by relying on the validity of long-established legal requirements for such claims. The plaintiff contended that he was being retaliated against for prior participation in a large sexual harassment lawsuit that had been decided some years earlier. In dismissing the retaliation and retaliatory harassment claims, the Court of Appeals relied on plaintiff’s procedural failures, including failure to file a proper administrative charge of discrimination with the EEOC and failure to proceed in a timely fashion. The case also failed in part because it was based on employer actions that were not materially adverse to plaintiff’s employment status. Finally, plaintiff failed to show severe or pervasive harassment, which would be necessary to support a retaliatory harassment claim.

Both of these recent decisions confirm that while public perception and understanding of sexual harassment may be experiencing a true revolution, in litigation both the employer and the employee must comply with largely well-established legal doctrines to determine who actually wins the case.

Quirky Question #284: If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, can you still unlawfully retaliate against it?

Question: One of our male supervisors wants to fire a female employee who complained that he was sexually harassing her. The harassment allegations appear to have some substance: he asked her for pictures of herself in a bikini; told her to “stay off [her] knees,” which she viewed as sexual innuendo; and told her that her regulation length shorts were too short. Also, the grounds for termination (driving a vehicle with the door open, creating a safety hazard) have been overlooked in other situations. We are a little worried that she will claim we are retaliating against her for the sexual harassment complaint.  But the supervisor says he never heard about the sexual harassment complaint.  So, if he didn’t know about the complaint, he could not possibly retaliate against her on the basis of that complaint, right?  You could get this case thrown out before it ever went to trial, right?


Quirky Question # 158, Reporting Harassment to the Harasser


Our company has a sexual harassment policy.  The policy makes clear that an employee who feels as though he or she has been harassed should report the problematic conduct to our Director of Human Resources.  The policy also provides that, if more convenient, or for any other reason, the employee also can report the harassing behaviors to anyone else in management.  Essentially, we’ve tried to make it as easy as possible for an employee to report harassment so our company can address the employee’s concerns effectively.

One of our employees recently filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC.  She claims that she was sexually harassed by the Director of Business Development, one of our company’s managers, and describes some pretty serious conduct.  In her Charge, she contends that she directly confronted this individual and advised him that his behaviors were unwelcome.  She also stated in her EEOC Charge that her direct communications with this individual constituted her “report” of sexual harassment to company management.

Surprise, surprise, our Director of Business Development never said anything to anyone else about this harassment “complaint”.  Is this legit?  Can the sole report of the harassment by the alleged victim of the harassment be made to the harasser? Answer→

Sexual Harassment and Negligent Hiring, Can Same Conduct Justify Two Claims, Quirky Question # 152

Quirky Question #152

One of our employees complained of sexual harassment. We investigated, though admittedly not as promptly as we should have. We discovered that the harasser had engaged in some seriously problematic conduct. Our investigation also revealed that the harasser had engaged in similar conduct at a prior employer and previously, at our company, with a different employee who had elected not to report.

The victim of the harassment is now threatening to sue us and demanding settlement compensation. Her lawyer suggests that if we do not settle, he will sue us for multiple claims, including both sexual harassment and negligent hiring. (Apparently, his investigation also revealed the past problems.) Is this legit? Can we be sued for multiple claims based on the same conduct?


Sexual Harassment, Quirky Question # 133

Quirky Question # 133:

Our company provides private correctional and detention management to government agencies around the globe.  One of our employees, a detentions officer, reported to our Ethics Officer that a co-worker called her work phone and asked her to engage in sexual intercourse and to be his “booty call” or “one night stand.”  She refused to file a formal written complaint.  Our Ethics Officer spoke with the co-worker, who denied the allegations and stated instead that the complaining employee had sexually harassed him.  Given the “he said, she said” nature of the complaints, the Ethics Officer told both employees to keep it professional at work.

A few weeks later, the employee again reported the same harassment to a supervisor.  The supervisor said he would speak with the Ethics Officer, but nothing more was done regarding the employee’s complaint.  It is undisputed, however, that the co-worker did not bother the employee again following the admonition from the Ethics Officer to both of them to keep it professional.

A few days after this second report of the same incidence, the complaining employee herself was suspended from employment as the subject of a federal investigation involving reports of misconduct including that she had engaged in sex with detainees and brought contraband into the facility.  The supervisor to whom the employee had complained the second time conducted the investigation.  The investigation concluded with a sustained finding that the complaining employee was observed by Officers and detainees blowing kisses, flirting and rubbing up against detainees.  The employee was terminated.

The employee has sued us, claiming that we engaged in unlawful employment practices by failing to take appropriate prompt and remedial action in response to her complaint of harassment and that we retaliated against her for making the complaint by terminating her employment.  Should we be concerned about losing this lawsuit? Answer→

Associational Gender Discrimination, Quirky Question # 118

Quirky Question # 118:

One of our male employees (call him Mr. X) recently complained that a supervisor at our company was sexually harassing Mr. X’s girlfriend, also one of our employees.  We advised him that we would investigate.  Apparently, however, our investigation was not moving sufficiently fast for him.  When Mr. X encountered the supervisor in routine work settings, he was confrontational and unpleasant.  We advised him he needed to tone it down and let our HR Department do its work, but that just seemed to anger him more.  The supervisor who had been accused of harassment informed us that he was getting very nervous about Mr. X’s antagonistic conduct.  Based on this escalating situation, we terminated Mr. X’s employment.He now has filed a charge for “associated discrimination” and retaliation.  Say what?  Can a significant other of our employees claim discrimination because of the way our company allegedly treats their girlfriend? Answer→

Corporate Liability for Employee Actions, Quirky Question # 112

Quirky Question # 112:

We are interested in expanding and diversifying our business in Alaska and are looking at acquiring and operating assisted-living facilities.  Although this is a logical spin-off from our primary business, we do not have any actual experience in this area.  We are attempting to sort through numerous issues related to the operation of these facilities.

We are concerned about local and national news stories detailing patient abuse by employees in such facilities.  Our initial thought is that we should not be responsible for the intentional conduct of our employees in such situations.  However, the tenor of the news reports has us re-thinking that view.  Can you provide any guidance?  We are interested in expanding and diversifying our business in Alaska and are looking at acquiring and operating assisted living facilities.  Although this is a logical spin-off from our primary business, we do not have any actual experience in this area.  We are attempting to sort through numerous issues related to the operation of these facilities.  We are concerned about local and national news stories detailing patient abuse by employees in such facilities.  Our initial thought is that we should not be responsible for the intentional conduct of our employees in such situations.  However, the tenor of the news reports has us re-thinking that view.  Can you provide any guidance? Answer→