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Supreme Court Rulings Which Explain Employer Liability for Sexual Harassment By Supervisory-Level Employees

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At the Law Firm of Morgan Rooks, PC, we provide legal representation for clients in need of a world-class workplace sexual harassment lawyer in South Jersey. We are passionate about assisting our clients in receiving the justice and compensation they deserve due to inappropriate and threatening sexual advances by their superiors. More than 20 years ago, the Supreme Court made important rulingsson sexual harassment in the workplace.  These rulings are still good law and are important for victims of sexual harassment to know.

As a result of two specific court cases, and a litany of similar incidents over the last 20 years, the Supreme Court has increased an employer’s liability under federal law for sexual harassment claims by victimized employees.

Case One: Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth (June 26, 1998)

In this case, Kimberly Ellerth, a salesperson at Burlington Industries, Inc. claimed that she had experienced quid pro quo sexual harassment because of repeated sexual advances by a high-level supervisor, who threatened Ellerth that she would never receive a promotion or have success with the company if she should spurn his advances.

Facts of the Case:

  • Ellerth did not suffer adverse effects after rejecting sexual advances.
  • After resigning, she sued the employer under Title VII, claiming quid pro quo sexual harassment.

The Argument:

Since the supervisor engaged in alleged harassment, the employer was liable for conduct regardless of its knowledge of the supervisor’s behavior or its attempts to end it.

Supreme Court Ruling:

The Court ruled in favor of Ellerth’s argument. An employer is responsible when a supervisor commits quid pro quo sexual harassment, even when the victim does not submit to illicit demands or suffer adverse job effects. Additionally, the Court held that employers would always hold direct responsibility if tangible adverse job effects (hiring, firing, failure to promote, etc.) were taken against the victimized employee.

Case Two: Faragher v. The City of Boca Raton, FL (June 26, 1998)

In this case, Beth Ann Faragher, working as a part-time lifeguard for the City of Boca Raton (1985-1990), and another female coworker claimed they were repeatedly subject to unsolicited touching and indecent comments by supervisors.

Facts of the Case:

  • Faragher never suffered tangible adverse job effects, though the lower court held that the supervisors’ repeated conduct constitutes a hostile work environment.
  • She and other lifeguards never had contact with City Hall officials.
  • The City had a sexual harassment policy, which was never distributed to employees or to the offending supervisors.
  • The victim never complained to anyone in city management, other than a non-harassing supervisor who neglected to report the conduct.
  • A year after her resignation, Faragher sued the City for sexual harassment.

Supreme Court Ruling:

Due to supervisors’ inherent power over employees and the employer’s trust in their hired supervisors, the employer should be held automatically liable for the harassment even if the offense is unknown to the employer. This ruling allows employers the opportunity to defend themselves if it can prove that 1.) it exercised reasonable care to prevent/correct offending conduct and 2.) the employee failed to take advantage of preventative/corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm in another way.     

As a result of the Ellerth and Faragher cases, federal law is more likely to protect harassed employees, making it more difficult for employers to avoid liability for its supervisors’ harassing conduct in the workplace. Employers must make their harassment policies known to and understood by all members of the organization, carefully select and train their supervisors, and take a more proactive approach to sexual harassment complaints, investigations, and disciplinary actions against policy violators.

Like the Supreme Court Rulings and recent federal laws, The Law Firm of Morgan Rooks, PC, is committed to achieving justice for victims of workplace harassment. For more information on quid pro quo sexual harassment or to bring in the leading sexual harassment and disability harassment at work attorneys in South Jersey, give us a call and schedule an appointment today.