Three recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions clarify employer liability in sexual harassment cases. In ruling on these issues, the justices further refined the definitions of sexual harassment, and in doing so expanded employer liability. The Court also, however, gave employers guidance regarding how to limit their liability.
In one case (Gebser et al v. Lago Vista Independent School District, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 96-1866, 1998), the Court ruled that a school district cannot be held liable for sexual harassment perpetrated by a teacher in its employ unless the district exercises direct control over the teacher, has notice of the harassment, and takes no action to correct the teacher's behavior.
Frank Waldrop was employed at Lago Vista High School (in Lago Vista, Texas) when he met a thirteen-year-old student identified in court documents as Jane Doe. Doe ended up in one of Waldrop's classes when she entered ninth grade.
In the summer of 1992, according to court documents, Waldrop visited Doe's home ostensibly to return a book. Knowing that Doe was alone, Waldrop allegedly initiated sexual contact. That summer, according to court documents, Waldrop and Doe (who was now fifteen) allegedly had numerous sexual encounters, none of which took place on school property. The situation ended in 1993, when a police officer discovered the two and arrested Waldrop.
Until this incident, school officials were reportedly unaware of Waldrop's alleged actions. The only notice given regarding Waldrop was made by parents of other children who had complained that Waldrop made inappropriate remarks in the presence of female students. The high school principal investigated these claims, which Waldrop denied, but could not prove the accusations. These complaints were not passed on to the school superintendent.
Doe's parents sued the school district for negligence and sexual harassment under Title IX - a federal law that, among other things, allows individuals to seek compensation for teacher-student harassment.
The school district requested summary judgment - a ruling on the facts of a case without a trial. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas granted the motion, finding that because the school district could not have known about the harassment, it could not be held liable for it.
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the decision, agreeing that Title IX claims require knowledge of the abuse by the defending party. The plaintiff again appealed.
The U.S. Supreme Court also ruled in favor of the school district. In the written opinion of the case, the Court stated that damages may not be recovered for teacher-student sexual harassment under Title IX unless a school district official who has authority to institute corrective measures knows about and is deliberately indifferent to the teacher's actions.
Through another decision (Burlington Industries, Inc., v. Ellerth, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 97-569, 1998), the Court established that an employee who experiences sexual harassment but suffers no adverse job consequences, such as demotion or termination, may still recover damages. The Court noted, however, that employers may mitigate liability by establishing a sexual harassment policy and making the policy available to employees.
In March 1993, Kimberly Ellerth interviewed with Mary Fitzgerald for a marketing job at Burlington Industries. Ellerth was invited back for a second interview with Theodore Slowik, the vice president of sales and marketing. During the interview, according to court records, Slowik asked questions that Ellerth considered strange. Slowik also stared at Ellerth's body in a way she felt was inappropriate. However, a week later, Ellerth was offered the job and she accepted.
Ellerth was based in the Chicago office, with a staff consisting of herself and Fitzgerald. Ellerth reported directly to Fitzgerald who reported to Slowik, who worked out of the company's New York City office. …