Employers defend harassment claims not involving a loss of tangible employment benefits (i.e., hiring/firing, promotion, reassignment, changes in benefits) with a two-prong defense. First, they show that they exercised reasonable care to avoid such conduct and eliminate it if it occurs (an effective policy and prompt corrective action). Second, employers show that the complaining employee failed to act with reasonable care to take advantage of the policy. Employers are successful in obtaining summary judgments in such scenarios where the employee flounders on the second prong by either totally failing to use the policy or doing so belatedly – even as short as two to four months after the incident occurred. Complaining employees try to keep their claims alive, often by claiming that their failure to promptly invoke the harassment policy was not unreasonable. A generalized fear of retaliation, unsupported by specific evidence, has not carried the day for employees, and employers have successfully disposed of such cases on summary judgment.
Last week, the Third Circuit released an opinion in Minarsky v. Susquehanna County, et al., in which it reversed the district court’s award of summary judgment to Susquehanna County and remanded the case for a jury trial on the merits. What is significant about this opinion is the impact that the #MeToo movement has seemingly had on the decision. In a page-long footnote, the Court discusses the #MeToo movement, the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace, and comments on why sexual harassment victims may not, even with proper mechanisms in place, reasonably be willing to report harassment.
Despite the “#MeToo” Movement, it’s still not uncommon for workers to make comments concerning a co-worker’s sexual practices. Nor is it uncommon for employers to successfully defeat sexual harassment claims based on such conduct by citing the well-established case law that discrimination statutes do not mandate a pristine work environment – shop-talk is not actionable.
California’s intermediate appellate state court recently ruled in Terris v. County of Santa Barbara that a county employee failed to demonstrate that alleged vulgar, derogatory remarks about homosexuals made by her former employer’s CEO were connected to her termination of employment. As a result, the court upheld summary judgment in favor of the employer and against the former employee in her wrongful termination action.
The area of LGBT rights in the workplace has garnered a great deal of attention in recent years as a split has grown among the courts and among federal agencies as to whether Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination. Under the Obama Administration, the Department of Justice argued that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination also included sexual orientation and gender identity. Recently, however, the Trump Administration’s Department of Justice filed an appellate brief in the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in which it argued that Title VII does not apply to sexual orientation.
Over the past several months, allegations of sexual misconduct have dominated headlines in all walks of celebrity life – including Hollywood, national newsrooms, business boardrooms, and even the halls of Congress. These revelations of widespread harassment have fueled the rise of the “#metoo” movement, which strives to raise the curtain on the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault in both the workplace and everyday life. Indeed, Time Magazine has collectively named “The Silence Breakers” as its 2017 Person of the Year. In many cases, and as is common in the American workplace, accusers of the alleged perpetrators now in the news had been required to sign agreements requiring arbitration of any employment-related disputes.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) is the government agency tasked with the responsibility to enforce the federal laws prohibiting discrimination in all types of work situations, including hiring, firing, promotions, harassment, training, wages, and benefits. Typically, the first steps for individuals seeking to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC are an initial inquiry and intake interview. These first steps are now made easier through the recently launched EEOC Public Portal. The EEOC Public Portal was piloted in five U.S. cities – Charlotte, Chicago, New Orleans, Phoenix, and Seattle – for six months before it was made available nationwide on November 1, 2017.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently affirmed summary judgment in favor of the employer in a case involving an allegation of a racially hostile work environment, which was supported by shocking evidence, including racial slurs, a noose, and even a KKK-style hood. Read on to learn how this employer has – so far* – escaped liability in the face of such egregious evidence.