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NY Court Says Unpaid Intern Not Protected by Harassment Laws

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn October 9, 2013In: Harassment, Harassment, Sexual

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The employment-discrimination laws have been expanding since their creation.  And, most of the time, that’s a good thing.  But there are times when I wonder, “Have we gone too far?”  There was the bullying craze a few years ago, when there was a push to make bullying in the workplace unlawful.  Although no decent employer (or human being) thinks that bullying is an endorsable attribute, I am of the opinion that it cannot be regulated via statute.  unpaid intern

And there are the recent cases that have found that individuals who are in the country unlawfully have standing to sue under the wage-payment laws.  I fall on the side of the employees on this one, in case you are wondering.

I defended a harassment case once that was brought by the former employee and her company, which had done business with the employer and which she claimed was subject to retaliation in violation of Title VII.  I tried to explain to my opponent that Title VII—an employment law—applies only to employees.  And, although the statute defines employees very, very broadly, I felt pretty confident that entities cannot be “employed” in this sense of the word.  Thankfully, my prediction proved true in that case and the court dismissed the claims brought on behalf of the company.

But it seems not to be an entirely settled question.  A New York judge ruled last week that an unpaid intern was not an “employee” for the purposes of that State’s anti-discrimination law and, therefore, could not bring a claim of sexual harassment.  According to USA Today, Oregon is the only state in the country to extend sexual-harassment protection to unpaid interns. 

Here’s my entirely unsolicited and subjective opinion on the question.  It seems to me that there are likely other remedies available to an intern who truly has been harassed.  And not just legal remedies, but the remedy that involves you heading for the door and finding somewhere else to give your valuable time to without compensation.

Is it a shame?  Yes, most definitely.  Is it a disgrace to the perpetrator and the employer who continues to employ him?  Absolutely.  But, the lucky break about being an intern is that the point of the experience is to learn, not to support yourself or your family.  And it seems like there are plenty of lessons to be learned in this scenario.  But that does not necessarily mean that there is a lawsuit to be had, either—at least not under the employment-discrimination statutes. 

Workplace Revenge and the Equal Opportunity Jerk

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn September 17, 2013In: Harassment, Harassment, Sexual, Jerks at Work

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Being a jerk is a legal defense, so to speak.  An “equal opportunity jerk” is a boss who treats everyone badly, regardless of race, religion, gender, etc.  If his subordinates sue, alleging an unlawful hostile environment, they’ll likely have trouble establishing that the jerk was more of a jerk to one particular group of employees based on a protected characteristic. 

It is a defense that defense lawyers prefer to not to have to invoke. Nevertheless, when the facts are there, even an unattractive defense can be a winner. Take, for example, the Third Circuit’s decision in Clayton v. City of Atlantic City. 

people backstabberThe plaintiff was a police officer in the Atlantic City Police Department, who alleged that she was subject to the sexual advances of a senior officer.  This went on for a number of years until, eventually, she came under his direct supervision. 

As her supervisor, she alleged, he gave her a less desirable work schedule and singled her out for various minor policy violations.  Another senior officer also disciplined her and reprimanded the plaintiff for other policy violations, which the plaintiff alleged were common practice throughout the Police Department, such as leaving the city limits without permission for lunch and for rolling her eyes during roll call.  She was eventually transferred to a different unit, which resulted in a pay decrease.

The plaintiff alleged that she was transferred because of her gender.  But she also testified to what she described as a “revenge management” culture in the department.  That culture, as she described it, meant that if you were not liked by a superior, regardless of gender, it was common for the superior to attempt to undermine your career.

It was this “culture of revenge” that resulted in the dismissal of the plaintiff’s suit.  The court reasoned that an attitude of “revenge” is not unlawful, provided it is equally applied without regard to race, religion, gender, etc.  Here, there had not been gender discrimination because males and females alike were subject to the punishments of dissatisfied supervisors.

Although this case makes an excellent teaching example, it’s not exactly one I would recommend as "inspirational.”  Equal opportunity jerks may not be in violation of the anti-discrimination laws, but, boy, they sure do get sued a lot.

Clayton v. City of Atlantic City, No. 12-4273 (3d Cir. Sept. 12, 2013).

You Are Not the Boss of Me

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn June 25, 2013In: Cases of Note, Harassment, Harassment, Other (Title VII), Harassment, Sexual

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The U.S. Supreme Court issued two important employment-law decisions this week and, surprising to many of us, both came out in favor of employers. Both cases will have significant impact on employment lawsuits but one of the two is of of particular interest to me because it has been an issue I’ve faced in prior cases of my own.

In Vance v. Ball State University, the Supreme Court was asked to decide what it means to be an employee’s “supervisor” for purposes of Title VII.  In short, the Court held that an individual can be considered to be a supervisor only if he or she has been empowered by the employer to take “tangible employment action” against the employee who claims to have been harassed. 

And what, exactly, is a “tangible employment action,” you ask?  Basically, it means the power to effectuate significant change in the victim’s employment status.  So the power to hire, fire, demote, etc., is the power to effectuate a tangible employment action.  If the individual does not have the authority to fire, transfer, or demote the victim, then the individual is not considered to be the victim’s supervisor.

Now, why does this matter?  In harassment cases, the law provides for an affirmative defense in certain cases.  By “affirmative defense,” I mean that, even if harassment did occur, the employer still will not be held liable if the defense is found to apply.  Which means that the affirmative defense is absolutely critical for an employer facing a harassment claim.

But the defense does have its limits. And one of them is when a supervisor is the alleged harasser.  If the employee was harassed by a supervisor and the harassment resulted in a tangible employment action, then the defense is not available.  So, in any case involving allegations of unlawful harassment, the employer will want to show that the alleged harasser was not the victim’s supervisor.

And that’s why the definition of a “supervisor” is so important. Prior to the Vance decision, the employee is free to argue that the individual was his or her supervisor based on any number of factors.  I had a case in which the plaintiff-employee claimed that the alleged harasser was her supervisor.  The employer disputed this, contending that the individual did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, or otherwise take any tangible employment action against the employee.  In response, the employee argued that the individual trained the employee.

Without the precedent to support our argument on what defines a supervisor, we were left only with “common-sense” arguments.  And, maybe it’s just me but “common sense” doesn’t get me very far with the court on most days.  Generally speaking, judges prefer to see a legal citation at the end of the sentence instead of a footnote that says, “Well, obviously.”

So although I do think that the Court’s opinion is one that derives a great deal of its holding from common sense, I am no less excited about it. 

Harassment Is Equal Opportunity

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn May 24, 2013In: Harassment, Sexual

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Harassment knows no boundaries. Unfortunately, it occurs in workplaces of any shape and size and can be effectuated by persons in positions of every variety and in every industry. Even a quick look at the story reported in today’s News Journal makes this very clear.

According to the story, a partner at a prestigious law firm in Indianapolis became seemingly obsessed with a female intern, who was later hired as an associate.  The associate filed suit based on the partner’s conduct, which, if to be believed, is outrageous, bordering on horrifying.

Some of the conduct alleged includes that the partner sent an email to the law firm, pretending to be the firm’s managing partner, claiming that the associate had acted in pornographic movies and suggesting that she had been awarded her job at the firm as a result of performing sexual favors.  The email also included a video clip of a young woman dancing topless—the video was not the female associate.  The email was one incident in a string of similar aggressions by the partner. 

As a result of the conduct, the Indiana Supreme Court suspended the partner’s law license for at least three years.

If true, this story is a sad example of the equal-opportunity nature of harassment in the workplace.

3d Cir. Issues a Bitchin' Constructive Discharge Decision

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn January 24, 2013In: Harassment, Sexual, Retaliation

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Sexual harassment, retaliation, and constructive discharge. The trifecta of employment-discrimination claims. And all three were the subject of a recent decision from the 3d Circuit. The decision contains lots of interesting discussion points but I'll limit myself to just one for the purposes of this post.

The plaintiff-employee contended that she resigned because her boss called her a "bitch" during a meeting. The court explained that, to establish a constructive discharge, the employee must show that "the employer knowingly permitted conditions of discrimination in employment so intolerable that a reasonable person subject to them would resign." In determining whether the employee was forced to resign, the court looks to several factors, including whether she was threatened with discharge, encouraged to resign, demoted, subject to reduced pay, involuntarily transferred to a less desirable position, subject to a change in job responsibilities, or given poor performance evaluations.

So is being called a "bitch" at a meeting so bad that it could force an employee to quit?

You may be surprised to learn that the 3d Circuit did not answer this question in the negative. Nor did it find that this single incident was sufficient to constitute a constructive discharge.

Instead, it sent the question back to the trial court. The trial court had dismissed the claim based only on its dismissal of her sexual-harassment claim. Although the district court was correct when it determined that there cannot be a constructive discharge unless there was conduct over and above a hostile work environment. The district court held that, since there was no hostile work environment, there could not be a constructive-discharge claim. Although that theory is correct, the 3d Circuit explained, the district court had erroneously found that there was no hostile environment. Thus, the 3d Circuit directed the trial court to reevaluate the constructive-discharge claim after it had taken a second look at the hostile-environment claim.

Mandel v. M&Q Packaging Corp., No. 11-3193 (3d Cir. Jan. 14, 2013).

Who Says I'm a Girly Man? Doth Sayeth the EEOC

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn December 27, 2012In: Discrimination, Discrimination & Harassment, EEOC Suits & Settlements, Gender (Title VII), Harassment, Harassment, Other (Title VII), Harassment, Sexual

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The EEOC has enjoyed several victories in recent months. For example, the EEOC was granted summary judgment in a hostile-environment claim filed on behalf of a class of black construction workers. Even more recently, the EEOC was awarded summary judgment in an age-discrimination lawsuit against the City of Baltimore. But things haven't been all peaches and cream for the EEOC.

In EEOC v. McPherson Cos., Inc., a federal district court in Alabama granted summary judgment to the defendant-employer in a sexual-harassment lawsuit brought by the EEOC on behalf of an unnamed male employee. The employee worked in a warehouse with an all-male workforce.

The EEOC alleged that, after being subject to a constant barrage of "ugly talk," the employee complained to his supervisor about the allegedly hostile work environment. About a year later, the employee confronted his co-workers, who apologized and, thereafter, stopped directing rude comments his way. About a year after that, the employee complained to HR, which investigated the complaint, resulting in discipline for several workers and two supervisors. After this last complaint, the comments ceased.

The court held that the EEOC had failed to establish the existence of an unlawful hostile environment because it had not shown that the rude comments and "ugly talk" were of a sexual nature or that they were made "because of" the employee's gender.

The EEOC argued that the harassment was because of his gender and, specifically, because of his effeminate behavior. This can be a valid cause of action--when a male employee is treated badly because he acts "too girly." But, here, despite the EEOC's argument, the testimony of the employee himself contradicted this argument. Thus, the court dismissed the gender-discrimination and sexual-harassment claims.

The court also dismissed the EEOC's retaliation claim. The employee was terminated, along with 11 other employees, as part of a reduction-in-force 3 months after his complaint to HR. The court expressed that it was "hard to believe" that the EEOC "is seriously arguing that the entire RIF process was a subterfuge for fraud designed for the sole purpose of providing cover for retaliation."

EEOC v. McPherson Cos., Inc., No. 10-cv-2627 (N.D. Ala. Nov. 14, 2012).

Not So Simply Irresistible, Says Iowa Supreme Court

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn December 26, 2012In: Discrimination, Gender (Title VII), Harassment, Sexual

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I've posted more than my share of stories involving allegations by employees that they were terminated because they were "too sexy" for the job. For example, there was the female banker who sued Citigroup, alleging that she was terminated for being "too sexy for her job." Then there was the data-entry employee who was terminated from her job in a lingerie warehouse for, she alleged, wearing what her employer considered to be clothing that was "too sexy."

Usually, this type of allegation involves at least some level of grandiose delusion and almost always involves the employee's belief that everyone hates her for being so darn good looking. But today's post goes much closer to the realm of the legitimate. Because this post involves an actual court decision. On December 21, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled that there was no unlawful discrimination where a dentist terminated his dental assistant of 10 years after his wife became jealous.

For his part, the dentist admitted that the assistant was a good employee and wasn't fired for poor performance. Instead, he claimed that her tight clothing was too distracting and felt that he wouldn't be able to resist her charms if she remained in his employ any longer, reports CNN.

In other words, the ruling makes clear that "being irresistible" will not serve as the basis for a gender-discrimination or sexual-harassment claim.

Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS, P.C., No. 11-857 (PDF).

Employees Must Turn Over Facebook Info For Harassment Claim

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn November 19, 2012In: Harassment, Harassment, Sexual, Social Media in the Workplace

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The discoverability of social-media evidence is far from a settled question. Many of the few cases that have addressed the question are employment claims. And the latest such decision is no exception. In EEOC v. Original Honeybaked Ham Company of Georgia, Inc., No. 11-02560-MSK_MEH (D. Col. Nov. 7, 2012), the Colorado District Court granted an employer's motion to compel and required the employee-class members to turn over their log-in and passwords to a special master, who would make an initial determination of discoverability.

The EEOC filed suit on behalf of approximately 20 female employees, who, the EEOC alleged, had been subject to unlawful sexual harassment and retaliation by their former employer. The defendant-employer sought to compel the class members to produce unredacted versions of their social-media accounts.

The court first reminded the parties that it was determining what was discoverable--not what would be admissible at trial. The court next acknowledged that discovery of social-media information is a "thorny and novel" area of the law. Then the court reached its first substantive conclusion:

The fact that [information] exists in cyberspace on an electronic device is a logistical and, perhaps, financial problem, but not a circumstance that removes the information from accessibility by a party opponent in litigation.

Based on that conclusion as its starting point, the court then turned to the question at hand. First, the court concluded that the evidence was discoverable. This finding was based on postings by one of the former employees to her Facebook page. In those posts, the employee discussed her financial expectations in the lawsuit; sexually amorous communications with other class members, and post-termination employment and income, to name a few. Other class members posted comments to this individual's Facebook page.

The court then discussed the privacy interests of the class members and concluded that a process was needed to ensure that only relevant, discoverable information would be gathered. To do this, the court would appoint a forensic expert a special master. The court ordered the employees to provide "directly and confidentially to the special master," all "necessary information to access any social media website" the employee had used during the relevant time period.

The parties are then to submit a joint questionnaire for the special master to use in gathering the information. The special master would then provide the court with a hard copy of all of the information yielded by the process and the court would conduct an in camera review. The court would review the information for relevancy and turn over only what was relevant to the EEOC.

So, what's to be learned from this decision? First, litigants are going to continue to bring this issue to the court. Second, parties are going to continue to post information relevant to their claims on social-media accounts. And, third, the courts are going to continue to struggle with the best way to order such information be produced.

In this case, with a class of claimants, there does seem to be some justification for the incredible use of the court's resources and time but, more often than not, such justifications will not be present. And in those cases, what is the appropriate process for the collection, review, and production of social media? That remains to be seen.

It's All Fun and Games . . . Until It Isn't

Posted by Lauren Moak RussellOn September 11, 2012In: Harassment, Harassment, Sexual

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Miseta v. Stardock, (E.D. Mich.), is a great example of what not to do as an employer in response to a claim of sexual harassment made by an employee.

The employer, Stardock, launched a new video game, Elemental: War of Magicm in August 2010. The game proved to be a complete failure. (I promise, it's relevant.)

Weeks before the launch, Stardock's Marketing Manager, Alexandra Miseta, quit. Shortly after she resigned, Miseta filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC, and later instituted a lawsuit.

Miseta alleged that she had been sexually harassed by the company's CEO. Miseta's claim was based, in part, on emails reaching back to 2008. Significantly, when Miseta sent an email to the CEO asking him to change his behavior, he sent the following response:

I am an inappropriate, sexist, vulgar, and embarrassing person and I'm not inclined to change my behavior. If this is a problem, you will need to find another job. . . . Again, I am not willing to adapt my behavior to suit others. . . . I'm not some manager or coworker of yours. I own the company. It, and your job here, exist to suit my purposes, not vice versa.

After 16 months of discovery, Stardock's attorneys moved for summary judgment asserting that Wardell's comments, while inappropriate, do not constitute sexual harassment. Not surprisingly the Court denied summary judgment.

Instead of acknowledging the loss, Stardock elected to sue Miseta, alleging that she destroyed marketing materials for Elemental, resulting in the game's resoundingly poor performance. The timing of the suit raises some questions. Two years after the files were allegedly deleted, and shortly after its summary judgment motion was denied. Current Stardock employees have also come forward to deny that Miseta deleted files, and offering up emails from the CEO praising the marketing team's work while making no mention of deleted files.

To make matters worse, the CEO apparently has taken matters into his own hands, posting statements to at least one videogame website defending himself and indicting Miseta for "getting pissed off, quitting without notice and using her network access to wipe out our marketing assets."

This is the type of client behavior that keeps lawyers up at night.

The lessons from this case are pretty obvious--don't be a jerk to your employees, don't revel in your chauvinism, and if you are going to do these things anyway, don't do them in writing! On a more serious note, we all occasionally make mistakes. It is sometimes more valuable to admit defeat and resolve to do better the next time, rather than engaging in internet rants and retaliatory litigation.

Stereotyping and “Reverse” Sexual Harassment

Posted by Teresa A. CheekOn September 9, 2010In: Harassment, Harassment, Sexual

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Claims of sexual harassment made by males has been on the rise. Allegations of male-to-male harassment, especially, are becoming increasingly common. Female-to-male harassment claims, though, are less common. And that's why a recent decision from the Ninth Circuit is particularly noteworthy for employers.

In EEOC v. Prospect Airport Services, Inc., the male plaintiff and the female alleged harasser both worked as passenger assistants (helping passengers who need wheelchairs) at McCarran International Airport. The plaintiff, Rudolpho Lamas, was a recent widower.  His alleged harasser, Sylvia Munoz, was married.male and female silver

After Munoz propositioned Lamas repeatedly, Lamas reported her conduct to the company’s assistant manager.  The manager responded that Lamas (the victim), should tell Munoz to stop and let management know if she didn’t stop. Lamas had already told Munoz that he was not interested, but, following his supervisor’s advice, he told her again. This did not work; Munoz gave Lamas a second note expressing interest in a relationship with him and then tried to give him a picture of herself. Lamas next asked his immediate supervisor for help, but she did nothing.

Munoz gave Lamas a third note that was even more aggressive and explicit. By this time, Munoz had told other co-workers of her interest in Lamas, and they began lobbying him on her behalf. He told them he was not interested, and began feeling embarrassed. Lamas went to the next supervisor up the chain, gave him the note, and asked him to make Munoz stop. The supervisor said he did not want to get involved in personal matters but he agreed to speak to Munoz as a “favor” to Lamas, acknowledging that the latest “love letter” was a violation of the company’s sexual harassment policy. The supervisor spoke to Munoz and warned her to stop, but she didn’t stop.

Munoz began making suggestive remarks and gestures whenever she was around Lamas, on a daily basis. Lamas began to feel oppressed and offended by the constant pressure from Munoz. She had co-workers tell him that she was going to “get him” no matter what. Co-workers began to speculate that Lamas was gay because of his negative response to Munoz. Lamas consulted a psychologist about his emotional distress; he felt helpless and cried.

Lamas complained to four different managers. The company’s general manager said the situation was a joke and that Lamas should walk around singing to himself, “I’m too sexy for my shirt.”

Continue reading "Stereotyping and “Reverse” Sexual Harassment" »

Tasting Breast Milk And Other Alleged Misdeeds in the Library of Congress

Posted by Adria B. MartinelliOn August 20, 2010In: Harassment, Sexual

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I’ve written on lactation and sexual harassment policies – I didn’t anticipate the opportunity to discuss both in the same article. As reported in the Washington Post, the Library of Congress recently settled a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by one of its librarians. The librarian alleged that the former Chief of the Law Library for the Library of Congress sexually harassed her and other librarians. Among the specific allegations were that he made remarks about female staffers’ bodies and informed some he’d tasted human breast milk.

So much material here, where to start . . . Let’s get the HR lesson out of the way: According to her complaint, the Library of Congress conducted an investigation, found him responsible for inappropriate behavior in 2007, but did nothing about it – after which he escalated his behavior. NEVER EVER conduct an internal investigation, conclude that sexual harassment occurred, and do nothing about it. It’s worse than not investigating at all.

Now, for other interesting pieces of this story. If true, his actions would be inappropriate in any workplace. Context does matter, though, and some industries and workplaces have different environments than others. The alleged harasser has to know, or have reason to know, his behavior was unwelcome. Take Hooters, for example. It may be harder for a waitress at Hooters to show that harassing conduct was unwelcome. Although the on Undercover Boss, we learned that Hooters' CEO was shocked to find that his waitresses were treated in a degrading fashion, I, for one, was not.

If I were to pick any workplace, in which I would assume such comments were NOT welcome, it would be a library. The LIBRARY OF CONGRESS more than any other library, in THE LAW LIBRARY. I’ve spent time in that library and can tell you that you get looked at sideways for turning the newspaper pages too loudly. The very thought of the Library Chief making sexually inappropriate comments in that environment is wrong on so many levels.

And as far as tasting human breast milk? I read in People Magazine (in between reading law review articles and scholarly blogs…) about this guy who makes cheese and other tasty recipes with his wife’s breast milk. Somehow, I imagine when Mr. Library Chief said he’d tasted breast milk, it wasn’t in Chef Dan’s cheese.

More Men Filing Sexual Harassment Claims

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn March 25, 2010In: Harassment, Sexual

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WSJ Online reports on an increase in the number of sexual-harassment complaints filed by men.

I can’t say that I’m surprised, especially in light of the parallel increase in the number of males who have been laid off or terminated for economic reasons. The unavoidable reality is that individuals are more likely to file a claim or a lawsuit when they’re out of work and, especially, when work is hard to find. Since September 2008, twice as many men have lost their jobs as compared to women. Which could explain the 12% increase in harassment claims brought by men since 2006.73971625

The claims brought by males are somewhat different than those brought by females, though. According to WSJ’s Dana Mattioli, claims brought by men often allege harassment in the form of “horseplay” or “rough-housing” in the workplace. Apparently, it’s no more fun to get beat up in the workplace than it was in the high-school locker room. Go figure.

Male-on-male harassment can look very much like bullying and can involve verbal and physical abuse. In November 2009, the Cheesecake Factory settled a sexual harassment suit filed by six male employees, who alleged that they’d been groped and otherwise subjected to physical attacks by male coworkers. The settlement came at a heft cost of $345,000.

To prevent these suits, employers should take the following steps:

1. Have a valid and effective anti-harassment policy;

2. Train employees on the prevention of harassment and be sure to include examples other than the traditional male-boss-harasses-female-secretary scenario; and

3. Do not tolerate workplace harassment by dismissing it as a “personality conflict” or justifying it by saying that “boys will be boys.”

Terri Cheek and Lauren Hudecki will be speaking on the issue of male-on-male harassment, as well as other gender-related workplace issues at our Annual Employment Law Seminar on April 28, 2010.

See these related posts:

Employee Handbooks: Anti-Harassment Tip Sheet

3d Circuit: Who Is a “Supervisor” for Purpose of Imputing Harassment Liability

The Death of a Sexual Harassment Policy

3d Circuit Decision on Who Is a "Supervisor" for the Purposes of Imputing Harassment Liability

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn June 16, 2009In: Harassment, Harassment, Sexual

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Employers in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virgin Islands, who are within the jurisdiction of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, have the benefit of a new decision from that court providing guidance on a key issue in harassment law.  The case, Huston v. Procter & Gamble Paper Products Corp., issued on June 8, is good news for employers and offers important precedent in a critical area of employment law. 

Some context . . .

When an employee files a sexual or other harassment claim involving allegations of harassment by a co-worker, the employer often invokes what is known as the Ellerth-Faragher defense.  To utilize this defense, the employer must show that it took reasonable steps to prevent harassment in the first place.  This is normally accomplished by showing that the organization had an anti-harassment policy, which was communicated to the employees.  (See my previous post for more information on what exactly constitutes an effective anti-harassment policy). 

If the employer can meet this burden, then the employer must demonstrate that it took reasonable steps to correct and mitigate the harassment.  Usually this means that the employee followed the steps outlined in the organization's anti-harassment by reporting the offensive conduct.  Next, it's up to the employer to act on the information that the employee has provided.  This requires the employer to follow the steps enumerated in its policy and to do so quickly.  At the end of the day, the employer must investigate the claim and take whatever steps necessary to cure any ongoing harassment.  And the employee must cooperate in the investigation and, within reason, accept whatever remedy the employer implements.

If the employer fails to promptly investigate or otherwise act once it knows or "has reason to know" of the allegations of harassment, the defense is not available.  The case often becomes one of "he-said, she-said" evidence and the employer will likely find it quite difficult to present an effective defense. 

Therefore, one of the most critical points is when the employee first makes its report.  If the employee tells only a friend, family member, or coworker, the employer is not deemed to have knowledge of the allegations and is not required to take any action.  If, however, the employer makes a complaint of harassment, formal or informal, to a member of management, including HR, the company is deemed to have knowledge of the allegations and its duty to act is triggered. 

In Huston, the 3d Circuit addressed the question of just who qualifies as a managerial employee sufficient for the purposes of imputing knowledge to the employer.  The employee-plaintiff, Huston, worked on a team of employees who operated large paper machines and claimed that the machine supervisors knew of the harassment but failed to take action in accordance with P&G's policy. She argued that, because "supervisors" had knowledge of the conduct, the organization also was imputed to have knowledge, triggering its duty to act.

The Third Circuit disagreed.  The court found that the machine supervisors did have some, limited supervisory functions but those functions were limited to  supervising work on the machines, which was insufficient to trigger liability for the employer.  Only two types of employees will be sufficient to impute knowledge of co-worker sexual harassment.  First, where the employee is "sufficiently senior" to the complainant or otherwise "in a position of administrative responsibility over employees under him, so that such knowledge is important to his general managerial duties.  Department or plant managers are examples of this first type of employee. 

Second, where the employee "is specifically employed to deal with sexual harassment" will be imputed to the company.  "Typically such an employee will be part of the employer's human resources, personnel, or employee relations group or department."  The court explained that just because an employee has "supervisory authority over the performance of work assignments by other co-workers is not, by itself, sufficient to qualify an employee for management level status [in this context].”  Instead, the court explained, “to the extent that such a supervisor does not have a mandate generally to regulate the workplace environment, that supervisor does not qualify as management level.”

Employee Handbooks: Anti-Harassment Tip Sheet

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn October 27, 2008In: Employee Handbooks, Harassment, Other (Title VII), Harassment, Sexual

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A legally effective anti-harassment policy is an absolute requirement for any employee handbook.  There is not a single reason to not have a policy that effectively establishes the organization's prohibition against harassment and related retaliation.  But there are millions of reasons to make sure that your handbook includes such a policy and that the workplace is set to manage a complaint of harassment should it receive one.   Employee Handbooks

To make sure your employee handbook includes a legally effective anti-harassment policy, a great place to start is with the EEOC itself.  In 2005, the EEOC issued the findings of a limited review of the anti-harassment programs in 43 federal agencies and one component's 64 sub-agencies.  The findings that were published included an excellent overview of the purposes of an anti-harassment program and the legal requirements of an effective policy.  The EEOC's report is as relevant and accurate today for private-sector employers as it was three years ago for federal-agency employers. 

According to the EEOC, an anti-harassment policy and complaint procedure should contain, at a minimum:

  • A clear explanation of prohibited conduct;
  • Assurance that complainants or witnesses will not be subject to reprisal;
  • A clearly described complaint process that provides alternative avenues for complainants;
  • Assurance that the employer will protect the confidentiality of the reporting employee to the extent possible;
  • A prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation process; and
  • Assurance that the employer will take immediate and appropriate remedial action if it determines that harassment has occurred.

Each of these elements are essential if you want your policy to be effective against a claim of harassment by an employee.   Employers cannot take advantage of an effective policy, though, without additional workplace safeguards.   The most important of these safeguards is periodic training.

Managers and supervisors should receive annual training to ensure that they understand their responsibilities under the company's anti-harassment policy and complaint procedure.  Training should review:

  • The types of conduct that violate the policy;
  • The seriousness of the policy;
  • Their responsibilities when they learn of a claim of harassment; and
  • The prohibition against retaliation. 

Employees should also receive periodic training.  After all, what good is a complaint mechanism with which employees are unfamiliar.  One important benefit of training employees on the organization's anti-harassment policy is the ability to communicate that harassment is not limited to sexual conduct alone.  Instead, an anti-harassment policy should cover all forms of harassment, including race, color, gender (both sexual and non-sexual), age, national origin, disability, and religion. Many employers' harassment policies are limited to sexual harassment, which is insufficient under the law. 

Strip Clubs: One Social Event Not to Include In a Summer Intern Program

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn September 12, 2008In: Harassment, Sexual, Just for Fun

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Employer's Nightmare.  A true story about the real dangers of summer internship programs--the social events.  First featured first by Jeremy Hodges at

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Act I: The Woes of Employer

Employer hires summer interns. Employer pays summer interns a lot of money. Employer requires very little work from summer interns. Employer ensures summer interns are wined and dined. Employer hopes summer interns will return for full-time work.

Act II: A Night On the Town

Employees organize a Friday-night gathering. Employer may or may not have sponsored said gathering. Gathering ends up in a strip club. In strip club, one male employee gets too close to summer intern. Summer intern, disgusted, rebukes employee's advance.

Act III:  Back at the Office

Intern reports employee's conduct. Employee's conduct is investigated by Employer. Employee leaves Employer. Intern accepts position with different Employer.

Tragic Ending

Employer is faced with lose-lose scenario.

Moral of the Story 

Don't let the kids out without a chaperone and make sure you know which employees are still kids.