How Should Employers Respond To Sexual Harassment Complaints?
For more than twenty years, our sexual harassment lawyers in Citrus County, Florida have represented sexual harassment victims. Through their decades of experience handling sexual harassment cases, our sexual harassment attorneys in Inverness, Florida know that employers often do not take sexual harassment complaints seriously. Instead of launching an investigation, taking action to stop the harassment, and punishing the harasser, many employers require sexual harassment victims to continue working in a sexually hostile environment as a condition of their employment. In other words, as the U.S. Supreme Court observed in Meritor Sav. Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986), sexual harassment victims are required to run a “gauntlet of sexual abuse in return for the privilege of being allowed to work and make a living.”
In far too many cases, employers also respond to sexual harassment complaints by launching a preemptive defense against any potential sexual harassment lawsuit. When doing so, employers invariably conduct investigations into sexual harassment complaints that are rigged to reach a pre-determined conclusion that no sexual harassment occurred. As part of their bad faith investigations, employers do not interview the victim’s witnesses, minimize the severity of the harassment, attempt to show that the harasser did not intend to cause harm or offense, and try to come up with information that can be used to blame the victim.
In this article, our sexual harassment lawyers in Citrus County, Florida explain how the decision in Stein v. Attorney General United States of America,2023 WL 3993014 (3d Cir. June 14, 2023) illustrates how employers are required to respond to sexual harassment complaints under federal employment discrimination law.
Protection From Hostile Work Environment
Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). “By tolerating sexual harassment against its employees,” as the court in Swenson v. Potter, 271 F.3d 1184 (9th Cir. 2001) explained, “the employer is deemed to have adversely changed the terms of their employment in violation of Title VII.” To prove a sexually hostile work environment claim, an employee must show that the sexual harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the employee’s employment and create an abusive working environment.
Once an employer knows or should know of sexually harassing conduct, Title VII imposes a remedial obligation on the employer. Under Title VII, the employer is obligated to take prompt and effective remedial action to stop the harassment and prevent the harassment from recurring. Courts have determined that an investigation into a sexual harassment complaint is a critical step in the employer’s remedial response. When an employer undertakes no remedial action, or where the remedial does not end the current harassment and deter future harassment, the employer is liable under Title VII for creating and maintaining a sexually hostile work environment.
Sexual Harassment Lawsuit
In Stein, a woman named Stein brought a sexual harassment claim against her employer, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice. For almost ten years, Stein worked in that role at the U.S. Penitentiary Canaan in Pennsylvania. Starting in 2014, Stein began to intermittently date another correctional officer, JE. They ended their relationship in early 2017.
Following the break-up, Stein claims that JE began subjecting her to harassing behavior. On August 8, 2017, after weeks of badgering Stein with phone calls, JE followed Stein in from the prison parking lot, cornered her in the officers’ mailroom, and began screaming at her to return his furniture. JE also allegedly called Stein a “whore” and tried to prevent her from leaving. Even after Stein escaped the mailroom, JE followed her down the corridor and continued to insult her until she entered a lieutenant’s office. At the lieutenant’s urging, Stein reported the mailroom incident. With her supervisor’s permission, Stein also left work to seek an emergency petition for protection from abuse (PFA). Stein received a PFA from a local court that day. Before that incident, Stein had not reported any sexual harassment by JE to anyone in her chain of command.
In response to the report of JE’s harassment, the prison warden formed a threat-assessment committee to investigate. The committee interviewed both Stein and JE and, on August 30, 2017, the warden approved a personal protection plan for Stein.
Employees Separated At Work
In seeking to separate them at work, that plan brought sweeping changes in JE’s workday but left unchanged Stein’s post and work schedule. The BOP transferred JE to a minimum-security satellite camp located a mile from the penitentiary, changed his hours, and prohibited him from entering the penitentiary without informing his supervisor in advance and obtaining an escort. The BOP also issued a cease-and-desist order to JE, under which he had to avoid unprofessional conduct with Stein. By contrast, Stein remained at her post at USP Canaan to work the same days and hours. As a final protective measure, the plan directed Stein to report workplace contact of any kind from JE.
For the two years following the start of the plan, Stein and JE had no contact at work. In September 2019, Stein had the first of a handful of workplace interactions with JE. One day, as Stein arrived at one of the penitentiary’s housing units, she found JE standing in the doorway glaring at her with his arms folded and chest puffed out. He also remarked to another female colleague that “here comes your girl coming for property.” The next month, JE took two voluntary shifts in Stein’s post and again stared at her. And then in November 2019, JE sent Stein an email at work about an inmate who did not receive his property back, asking her “please check and see if he has any property at all in the property room.”
Prompt & Effective Remedial Action
The trial court dismissed Stein’s sexual harassment claim. In affirming the trial court’s dismissal of Stein’s sexual harassment claim, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the BOP was not liable for any sexually harassing behavior Stein experienced because it took prompt and effective remedial action in response to Stein’s report of the mailroom incident.
The appellate court found that the BOP’s remedial action was “prompt” because on the day of the incident, “Stein’s lieutenants had her draft a detailed memorandum regarding [JE’s] harassment, and they immediately reported the incident up the chain-of-command to the prison’s warden.” “Upon receiving that report,” the court noted, “the warden convened a threat-assessment committee that same day.” “That committee,” the court observed, “then interviewed both parties and developed a personal protection plan to keep Stein safe at work.” “Under the plan,” the court pointed out, “the BOP reassigned [JE], changed his hours, issued him a cease-and-desist order, and implemented additional controls to prevent him and Stein from being alone together at work.”
The court of appeals also found that the BOP’s remedial action was “effective” because “Stein and [JE] did not have any interactions at work for over two years.” “And those interactions they had after that time,” the court observed, “were sporadic and did not rise to the level of harassment: those episodes consisted of a caustic quip, unfriendly body language, and an email that, at least on its face, was work-related.”
Citrus County Sexual Harassment Lawyers
Based in Ocala, Florida and representing workers throughout Florida, our employment sexual harassment attorneys in Citrus County, Florida have dedicated their practice to fighting for the rights of sexual harassment victims. If you have been sexually harassed at work or have questions about an employer’s obligation to protect you from sexual harassment in workplace, please contact our office for a free consultation with our sexual harassment lawyers in Citrus County, Florida. Our employee rights law firm takes sexual harassment cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.