Supreme Court Rulings on Two Closely Watched Sexual Harassment Cases Changes Employer Liability

Article excerpt

THE U.S. SUPREME COURT ISSUED RULINGS ON MANY LEGAL cases at the close of its session on June 26, including two cases closely watched by the human resources community.

These cases clarified employer liability for sexual harassment in the workplace. In Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, Beth Faragher, who worked for five years as a lifeguard for Boca Raton, Florida, claimed she suffered repeated incidences of touching, sexual gestures and comments from two male bosses. Faragher feared retaliation and never reported it.

In the case of Burlington Industries Inc. v. Ellerth, marketing assistant Kimberly Ellerth spurned the continual advances of her supervisor, a corporate vice president at Burlington Industries based in Greensboro, North Carolina. Yet Ellerth suffered no tangible job detriment because of the harassment.

Previous lower court rulings in both cases didn't lean in favor of the two women plaintiffs because the Civil Rights Act of 1964's Title VII clearly states that individuals filing lawsuits with regard to sexual harassment had to suffer tangible job loss because of the alleged harassment. The high court's new rulings in these cases suggest it will be easier for a harassed person to win a lawsuit because they no longer will have to show they suffered job loss, such as a pay cut, or not getting a promotion or prime assignments. However, the court also more explicitly spelled out that employers should enjoy more protection from lawsuits if they have a strong program in place to prevent and discipline harassment.

Indeed, the recent Supreme Court decisions should help clarify the circumstances under which an employer can be held liable for sexual harassment by an immediate or successively higher supervisor, says Paul Salvatore, a New York City-based labor and employment law partner and an expert on sexual harassment issues at Proskauer Rose LLP. …