Psychological Injury Not Required for Sexual Harassment in "Abusive Work Environment"

Article excerpt

As the "NRPA Law Review" column begins its 14th year of publication in Parks and Recreation, it seems timely to revisit a topic which was examined in April 1983 in an article entitled, "Employer Liability for Sexual Harassment in the Workplace." This article cited the case of Henson v. City of Dundee, 682 F2d 897 (1982), in which the plaintiff alleged that the city's police chief "created a hostile and offensive working environment for women in the police station by subjecting them to numerous harangues of demeaning sexual inquiries and vulgarities." The specific issue is this case, therefore, was whether the plaintiff had alleged sufficient facts to establish that "her resignation was tantamount to a constructive discharge based upon sex." As noted by the federal appeals court in Henson, "when an employee involuntarily resigns in order to escape intolerable and illegal employment requirements to which he or she is subjected became of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, the employer has committed a constructive discharge in violation of Title VII."

If discriminatory practices based upon sex would cause a reasonable person to quit her job, the employer will be held liable for effectively discharging the individual in violation of Title VII...

Sexual harassment which creates a hostile or offensive environment for members of one sex is every bit the arbitrary barrier to sexual equality at the workplace that racial harassment is to racial equality. Surely, a requirement that a man or woman run a gauntlet of sexual abuse in return for the privilege of being allowed to work and make a living can be as demeaning and disconcerting as the harshest of racial epithets.

According to the Henson court, federal regulations governing sexual harassment "included psychological well-being as well as tangible job benefits as terms or conditions or employment within the purview of Title VII."

[U]nder certain circumstances the creation of an offensive or hostile work environment due to sexual harassment can violate Title VII irrespective of whether the complainant suffers tangible job detriment...[T]erms, conditions, or privileges of employment include the state of psychological well-being at the workplace...For sexual harassment to state a claim under Title VII, it must be sufficiently pervasive so as to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment. Whether sexual harassment at the workplace is sufficiently severe and persistent to affect seriously the psychological well-being of employees is a question to be determined with regard to the totality of the circumstances.

As described herein, in the case of Harris v. Forklift System, Inc., the Supreme Court of the United States qualified this "hostile or abusive work environment standard" in evaluating claims of sexual harassment. Specifically, the Court found that "[t]he effect on the employee's psychological well-being is, of course, relevant," but not conclusive "to determining whether the plaintiff actually found the environment abusive."

Workin' in a Coal Mine?

In the case of Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 113 S.Ct. 1382, 122 L.Ed.2d 758 (1993), plaintiff Teresa Harris sued her former employer, defendant Forklift Systems, Inc., for sexual harassment. Harris worked as a manager at Forklift Systems, Inc., an equipment rental company, from April 1985 until October 1987. Charles Hardy was Forklift's president. The facts of the case were as follows:

[T]hroughout Harris' time at Forklift, Hardy often insulted her because of her gender and often made her the target of unwanted sexual innuendos. Hardy told Harris on several occasions, in the presence of other employees, "You're a woman, what do you know" and "We need a man as the rental manager"; at least once, he told her she was "a dumb ass woman."

Again in front of others, he suggested that the two of them "go to the Holiday Inn to negotiate Harris' raise. …