Parks Chesin & Walbert | The History of Sexual Harassment Claims in the Workplace
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The History of Sexual Harassment Claims in the Workplace

It is only in the last 50 years that sexual harassment has become recognized as an obstacle to a safe working environment for all employees. For hundreds of years it was nearly impossible for a woman to successfully bring claims of rape or a lawsuit for damages against an employer who harassed her or demanded sexual favors. The rise of the Women’s Rights Movement in the mid-1800’s brought to light the issue of sexual coercion of working women (particularly servants). However, this generally received less attention than women’s lack of access to property rights, poor working conditions, and societal dependence on men.

Where Did Change Start?

The idea of sexual harassment and discrimination based on sex or gender wasn’t put into law until 1964 in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Title VII prohibits businesses from discriminating against employees based on their “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” The word “sex” was added at the last minute thanks to a female representative. Title VII also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (or EEOC) to carry out the law.

Sexual harassment was not originally understood to constitute sex discrimination as stated in Title VII. In fact the phrase “sexual harassment” wasn’t even created until the mid-1970’s. In early sex discrimination cases, businesses had to clearly treat women under different policies to succeed in court. This was the case in Phillips v. Martin-Marietta.

Two Types of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment did not officially become a part of sex discrimination under Title VII until 1980, when the EEOC added new guidelines describing two forms of harassment.The first type of sexual harassment is “quid pro quo,” where one’s work is dependent upon providing sexual favors. The second type is the “hostile work environment.” After the new guidelines, the first sexual harassment case to reach the Supreme Court came in 1986 with Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson. In that case, Michelle Vinson, a bank teller, charged that her boss, Sidney Taylor, pressured her into a sexual relationship and regularly fondled her and other female employees. Vinson didn’t claim that her promotions at work were due to the sexual relationship and only had a hostile environment claim of harassment. The Court made it clear that a hostile environment claim is about more than whether an employee consented to sexual advances, but whether they were unwelcome.

In 1993, the Supreme Court held that a hostile environment sexual harassment claim doesn’t require any evidence of psychological harm. Because a hostile environment can affect a person’s job performance and advancement and significantly changes their work situation, whether the employee suffered trauma or damage is irrelevant to the claim.

Same Sex Harassment

Outside of male-on-female sexual harassment, the law was less clear on same-sex harassment until 1998. That year a case involving same-sex harassment made its way to the Supreme Court. A male employee on an oil rig was humiliated, assaulted, and threatened with rape by other male co-workers. The Court ruled that this behavior could qualify as sexual harassment even though neither the victim nor the other employees were gay.

Since the creation of Title VII and the EEOC, sexual harassment cases now start with a complaint made directly to the EEOC. From there, complaints may be addressed through mediation or investigation. Many cases are settled with employers before reaching the courtroom. However, there are still other ways for a sexual harassment claim to move forward. An employee may sue the supervisor of the person who harassed them if they did not do enough to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

In Georgia, there is no law protecting individuals from sexual harassment. Most claims are addressed through Title VII and the EEOC. However, the law does allow an employee to sue for sexual harassment under both Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (or IIED) and Negligent Hiring. The standards for IIED in Georgia are quite high, requiring “severe distress”. If there is any physical contact, a plaintiff may also have potential claims for assault and/or battery as well.

The EEOC reports that harassment claims continue to rise, as do cases of retaliation after reporting sexual harassment. However, the EEOC also continues to see larger settlements, especially against businesses with widespread sexual harassment that affects large numbers of employees. In 1998, the EEOC settled its largest case ever against Mitsubishi Motors of $34 million based on the claims of over 300 workers. In recent months in Georgia, the King’s Way Baptist Church in Douglasville and the Crawford County Development Authority have settled sexual harassment claims brought through the EEOC.

While Georgia has no direct remedy, Title VII and the EEOC can now provide clear guidelines on sexual harassment for businesses and employees alike.

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