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Employer Liability for Harassment: Precedents and Famous Cases

All businesses must be aware of the potential employer liability that can arise when there are employee claims of harassment. Understanding the relevant cases that have been adjudicated and their impact on employer obligations can help businesses develop a better understanding of their legal responsibilities. High profile cases can also help employers avoid the disastrous results when employer liability is imposed due to their lack of creating a harassment-free workplace. 

Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986)

The Supreme Court found for the first time that sexual harassment is a violation of Title VII. 

Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. (1988)

This was the first sexual harassment class action lawsuit in the United States. It was spearheaded by Lois Jensen, who was one of the first women hired to work in a Minnesota iron mine in 1975. Jensen and her female coworkers alleged that they were subject to continuous harassment by male coworkers who made comments that they should stay at home. Jensen filed a complaint in 1984 and more women joined the case. It finally came to an end when Eveleth settled with the claimants for $3.5 million. 

Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989)

This case dealt with a situation in which a female worker was denied becoming partner at a firm after performance evaluations stated that she could further her career if she wore makeup, dressed more femininely and attended charm school. The Court gave a new test for employers whose adverse employment action was based on mixed motives. The Court ruled that a cause of action was viable when the plaintiff established that discrimination played a motivating factor in the adverse employment decision, such as unlawful sex or race bias.

Navy Tailhook Scandal (1992)

This case involved a female Navy aviator who attended the Tailhook convention of Naval aviators in 1991. The aviator, 87 other women and seven men were sexually assaulted by approximately 100 armed forces men who groped and pinched them. The female aviator reported the incident to her commanding officer, but there was no action taken against the men. The female aviator went public with the case, which led to several male officers being formally disciplined or refused advancement in rank. The female aviator later sued the hotel where the convention was held and won a $5.2 million judgment against it.

Faragher v. City of Boca Raton (1998)

This case clearly stated when employer liability would arise for acts of sexual harassment when supervisors harassed their underlings. The Court held that employer liability arises when there is an adverse employment action taken against an employee. However, the Court held that the employer could potentially avoid employer liability if it could show no such adverse action was taken, the employer established an effective method for employees to report harassment and the alleged harassed employee failed to take advantage of this system. 

Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services (1998)

This case opened up lawsuits for homosexuals and others who had legitimate complaints about sexual harassment when the victim and harassing party were the same sex.

Ralph’s Grocery Store (2002)

A jury awarded six female employees at this grocery store in Escondido $30 million in 2002. They alleged the store manager harassed them for a year, including fondling them.

Ashley Alford v. Aaron's Rent-to-Own (2011)

Ms. Alford claimed that her store manager sexually harassed her and assaulted her in 2006. While she was originally awarded $95 million, the award was later reduced to $40 million due to a cap on damages.

Ani Chopourian v. Mercy General Hospital (2012)

Ms. Chopourian was a physician’s assistant at the Sacramento-based hospital. She said that doctors continuously requested sexual favors,  called a “stupid chick,” and was told that she did surgery “like a girl.”  She also alleged that she was terminated because she filed multiple complaints with the hospital’s human resources department. Employer liability was found in 2016, and a jury ordered the hospital to pay her $168 million, $3.5 million for lost wages and benefits, $39 million for mental anguish and $125 million in punitive damages.

Gretchen Carlson v. Fox News (2016)

The former Fox News anchor brought her lawsuit against her former boss, Roger Ailes. 21st Century Fox settled with her for $20 million and offered a public apology. Additionally, her lawsuit paved the way for other women to receive real remediation for their discriminatory experiences. 

Avoiding Employer Liability

Businesses can take steps to minimize employer liability. A written harassment policy should indicate what is considered harassing behavior. It should include examples. It should also state the possible disciplinary action that will be taken if a supervisor, employer or other individual harasses an employee. Additionally, training for supervisors and employees can help them understand harassment in the workplace and know how to respond to it. Businesses are responsible for providing a harassment-free workplace and must do so in order to avoid employer liability. Most importantly, employers must fulfill, and act upon, their obligation to conduct an investigation in response to complaints of protected activity.

Cite this article: Lynch, N. (2017). Employer Liablity for Harassment: Precedents and Famous Cases: