Almost 23 years ago, two Hollywood A-list actors, Michael Douglas and Demi Moore, starred in a dramatic film called “Disclosure.” The issue of workplace sexual harassment –- specifically, quid pro quo harassment –- was a key plot point in the film. In the movie, the female boss (Moore’s character) engaged in quid pro quo harassment of her male subordinate employee (Douglas’ character).
More than two decades later, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled upon a case with a somewhat similar background. A mechanic who worked for an Oklahoma trucking company sued for sexual harassment. The case alleged that the mechanic suffered negative treatment at work because he would not have sex with his female boss (who was a shareholder in the company), while another mechanic fared better at work because he did have sex with her. In the mechanic’s complaint, he asserted that the employer created a hostile work environment. The employer argued that these allegations did not give it notice that the mechanic planned to pursue a quid pro quo case. The 10th Circuit ruled for the mechanic, determining that quid pro quo and hostile work environment forms of sexual harassment can be closely interwoven and are not always “wholly distinct.”
Here in Georgia, the 11th Circuit has dealt with federal sexual harassment cases claiming this type of wrongdoing in a somewhat different manner. The 11th Circuit defines this type of harassment as an employee submitting “to the unwelcomed advances” as a condition for receiving an employment benefit or avoiding a negative workplace consequence. That the sex is a pre-condition for this workplace benefit (or avoidance of harm) can be either express or implied.
Employers may potentially have a defense in these types of sexual harassment cases. This defense requires the employer to show two things: one, that it took all reasonable steps to prevent or address sexual harassment in its workplace, and, two, that the alleged victim did not fulfill the employee’s responsibility to use the employer’s mechanisms for reporting sexual harassment in a timely fashion.
A 2007 11th Circuit case demonstrated these concepts in action. A female insurance worker had a male supervisor who made allegedly multiple overtures to her, including unzipping his zipper, asking her to perform oral sex on him, and asking her to spend the night in his hotel room.
The employee did not report these acts right away. She did not approach the employer’s human resources staff until after the relationship between her and her supervisor had deteriorated over other issues some time later. The employee in this case lost because the employer successfully met the criteria outlined in the two-part defense. The employee acknowledged that the employer had a valid anti-discrimination policy prohibiting harassment, and she was aware of the policies and the reporting procedures related to them. Secondly, the employer had proof that the employee did not meet her duty to report the harassment in a timely manner, since she waited until her relationship with her boss soured for other reasons to report the harassment, which satisfied the second prong of the defense.
When an employer encounters an instance of alleged sexual harassment, the law does not require employers “to conduct a full-blown, due process, trial-type proceeding in response to the complaint. All that is required of an investigation is reasonableness in all of the circumstances.” Whether you are an employer or an employee, it is extremely important to understand your rights and your obligations in a sexual harassment case. The skilled and knowledgeable Georgia sexual harassment attorneys at Mays & Kerr have been helping both employees and employers deal with these types of cases at every step along the process.
To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 1-877-986-5529.
More blog posts:
11th Circuit Rules that Employee Lacked Evidence of ‘Severe’ and ‘Pervasive’ Harassment in Hostile Work Environment Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Feb. 16, 2017
Federal Court in Tennessee Permits Sexual Harassment and Hostile Work Environment Claims to Move Forward, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, July 28, 2014