We are all watching and reading how Uber is responding to yet the latest scandal and legal problem to confront the on-demand ride service giant. About a week ago, a former Uber employee, Susan Fowler, posted a blog about why she left Uber last December. Susan alleges (and these are only allegations at this point) that during her one year at Uber as an engineer, she was subject to harassment and a rampant sexist culture at Uber, and when she complained, Uber did nothing. Continue Reading What Does the Ex-Uber Employee’s Blog Teach Employers about the Power of Social Media?
This is one of those pro-employer cases that just doesn’t make sense to me, even though I’m a die-hard management-side lawyer. It frankly strikes me as a case of punishing the victim. To explain:
In Furcron v. Mail Centers Plus, LLC, the employer provided facilities and administrative support to other businesses, including the Coca-Cola Company. A male employee with Asperger’s syndrome (which can cause awkward social mannerisms) was transferred to a mailroom (following some awkward social interactions with a female employee in his prior assignment). According to a female mailroom employee, after his transfer, the male employee frequently entered her work area and invaded her personal space. He stared at her and, as witnessed by another employee, attempted to look down the female employee’s shirt and at her underwear when she bent over. But even worse, as witnessed by yet another employee, he frequently exhibited an erect penis while staring at the female employee and would deliberately bump and rub his erection against her!!! Continue Reading Employee Violated Sexual Harassment Policy by Photographing Her Harasser’s Erection?
As I mentioned in a recent post, “SEIU Fights Its Own Unionization,” the Service Employees International Union has been behind the push at the National Labor Relations Board to extend joint employer status to franchisors, like McDonald’s (meaning that McDonald’s would be deemed an employer of its franchisees’ employees). And now, it is further extending this push – to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. On October 5, 2016, (as first reported by The Guardian) Fight for $15 (which is backed and funded by SEIU) announced that it had helped 15 McDonald’s employees (who are also Fight for $15 activists, unsurprisingly) file charges with the EEOC, claiming that they had been sexually harassed by their employers. Apparently only one of the charges was filed against a corporate McDonald’s store – the rest were filed jointly against franchisee stores and McDonald’s Corporation. Continue Reading SEIU Expands Joint Employment Fight to the EEOC
As I’ve made clear in past posts, I am increasingly frustrated with the current National Labor Relations Board’s clearly pro-union, anti-employer approach. I find many of their decisions to have little or no relationship to common sense or logic. So I found a concurring opinion by Judge Patricia Millett in the recent case of Consolidated Communications, Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board to be of particular interest, as she expresses her “substantial concern with the too-often cavalier and enabling approach that the Board’s decisions have taken toward the sexually and racially demeaning misconduct of some employees during strikes.” Judge Millet goes on to say, “These decisions have repeatedly given refuge to conduct that is not only intolerable by any standard of decency, but also illegal in every other corner of the workplace.” (!!!!) Continue Reading Why Does the NLRB Tolerate Racist and Sexist Conduct?
That’s an eye-catcher of a title, isn’t it? As reported by the New York Times, Babeland, an adult toy store, became the first sex shop to become unionized. Workers at three New York City locations voted to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, one of the country’s largest retail unions.
Why did they choose to unionize? There were several typical reasons – wanting more transparency around hiring, promotions and discipline, as well as better ways of addressing workplace disputes and grievances.
But there were some other, less typical reasons. One is the customers. I’m sure you aren’t surprised to hear that Babeland’s customers can be, well, difficult. Some of them seem to believe that it’s ok to sexually harass sex shop workers. The workers want management to provide better training and support in dealing with these folks. Continue Reading Sex Shop Workers Unionize
So, someone who posed as a nude lumberjack for Playgirl is now upset about the (foreseeable!) consequences of his decision – teasing by his coworkers. And a federal court judge has found that the employee’s sexual harassment claim against his employer, based on his coworkers’ teasing, may have merit. To me, this case, Sawka v. ADP, Inc., is crazy on several levels!
Let’s start with the employee. I find the lack of personal accountability in our society to be appalling. Many people are unwilling to take responsibility for their choices and actions – and, in my opinion, this employee falls into this group. It seems to me that if you choose to put it ALL out there in a sexually-focused publication that is intended for widespread public distribution, you should realize that people (including those you know!) will look at the pictures, comment on them, and, yes, tease you about them. Really, isn’t the whole point of posing for a magazine like Playgirl to invite such attention? Now, I understand that the pictures date from 1991, and perhaps the employee regrets having posed for them at this point in his life. But the passage of time does not and should not absolve him of his responsibility for his (in retrospect) possibly ill-considered decision.
Moreover, his expectations of what his employer should have done were, again in my opinion, unrealistic. The employee initially failed to complain because, in part, he found it “embarrassing.” (Really?) When he finally complained about his coworkers, the employer conducted an investigation, which included interviewing the list of witnesses he provided as well as others. The employee now contends that the employer should have searched the computers of his coworkers to verify that they had looked for his pictures on the Internet. But at the time, I am sure the employer believed it had addressed the issue by speaking with the worst offender about his comments and instructing the Vice President in charge of the office to report any further comments or Internet searches for the employee’s pictures. Given that the employee admittedly did not make any further complaints (although he now alleges that the comments didn’t stop), the employer undoubtedly thought it had resolved the problem.
This one raised my eyebrows – definitely not your typical sexual harassment case.
In Waltz v. Dunning, the plaintiff began working for a company, BHC, in 2001. She reported directly to the CEO. They began a sexual relationship in 2003, which the plaintiff claimed was initially non-consensual (she said she only had sex with the CEO to avoid his becoming upset or physically abusive). However, she and the CEO began referring to each other as “husband and wife” (even though he was already married, the dog!), and had two children together, in 2005 and 2007. In 2008, the plaintiff resigned from BHC to work at another company, Synergy, which was also started by the CEO and had close ties to BHC. By 2009, the plaintiff was wearing a wedding ring that had been given to her by the CEO. They spent holidays together, went on family vacations, and took videos to commemorate special occasions. He joined in birthday and holiday celebrations with the plaintiff’s parents. He helped pay for the medical expenses of the plaintiff’s mother, who had cancer. He also bought the plaintiff and their children a home. The plaintiff sent him affectionate texts and emails, as well as cards, and bought him expensive gifts including a $7,000 watch (garnished with diamonds!).
In 2012, the plaintiff ended the relationship and quit her job at Synergy. The CEO filed for custody rights for their two children, and the plaintiff then sued him and his companies for sexual harassment and other state law tort claims, including invasion of privacy, and assault and battery.
The court, however, threw out her claims. In order for the plaintiff’s claims to be valid, the CEO’s conduct had to be “unwelcome.” As the court noted, although the conduct might have been unwelcome at the outset and for some time thereafter, the relationship clearly became consensual, when taking into consideration all of the circumstances described above and the fact that it lasted for ten years! The court also particularly marked the fact that the plaintiff filed suit only after the CEO sought custody of their children. (That was definitely some suspicious timing).
Sexual harassment? Clearly that’s hard to prove when the alleged harasser is the same person you called your “husband” for many years!
Courts have recognized same-sex harassment claims based on a failure to conform to gender stereotypes – such as when a male plaintiff is harassed for being effeminate or exhibiting traditionally feminine characteristics (see my prior blog post on harassment of a male ironworker because of his use of Wet Ones instead of toilet paper!). In an interesting variation on this claim in Rachuna v. Best Fitness Corp., a male fitness instructor sued his employer for harassment because he didn’t fit the stereotype of being “sexually loose, promiscuous and predatory,” like his harassing male supervisor. (Well, there is definitely a stereotype of studly, oversexed male trainers…something to do with all those muscles and sweat…)
The employer asked the Court to dismiss the claim. The employer argued that same-sex harassment claims required that the employee not only allege that the harasser believed the employee didn’t confirm to the stereotype of a heterosexual male, but specifically allege that he was harassed for being effeminate. In support of its argument, the employer cited a number of cases about the harassment of effeminate males.
The Court rejected the employer’s argument, however, stating that these cases do “not mean that these are the only circumstances that can support a claim of same-sex harassment based on gender stereotyping.” Here, the employee alleged that his supervisor expected men, including the employee, to join in the “lewd, promiscuous and predatory talk” and that the supervisor targeted the employee for refusing to join in. The Court found these allegations were sufficient to state a claim of same-sex harassment.
So, a same-sex harassment claim isn’t just a claim that the employee is too gay, but can also be a claim that he isn’t enough of a male chauvinist pig – how’s that for a sexual stereotype? (I keep imagining the supervisor singing that #1 song from a few years back, “I’m too sexy…”).
There are many sexual harassment cases, but this one, Malphurs v. Cooling Tower Systems, Inc., really caught my attention: The plaintiff claimed that the owner of the company often made her work late so that he could sexually harass her when they were alone. These late hours were overtime, but the owner allegedly refused to pay the employee for this overtime unless she gave in to his sexual demands.
Talk about adding insult to injury! Not only was the poor employee subjected to sexual harassment, but she wasn’t even being paid for the time that she was being sexually harassed! So she sued the owner under the Fair Labor Standards Act for failure to pay overtime, and also under the state anti-discrimination law for sexual harassment.
The actual legal issue in the court’s decision was whether the federal court should hear the state law harassment claims in conjunction with the federal overtime claim. Normally, if there’s no connection between the claims, the employee would be required to bring two separate lawsuits – one in federal court for the federal claim and one in state court for the state claims. In this case, however, the court found that the two claims were factually connected, and could properly be heard in a single lawsuit in federal court.
But (not-so-interesting) legal issue aside, it seems pretty obvious that if a supervisor is going to be dumb enough to harass an employee after normal work hours, at least pay the employee for that time! At 1 and 1/2 times their regular rate of pay, please!
Employers (most of them, anyway) understand that they must protect their employees from harassment by their co-workers or supervisors. A recent case, Freeman v. Dal-Tile Corp., provides a reminder that they must also protect their employees from harassment by outsiders.
The employer, Dal-Tile, did a significant amount of business with another company, VoStone. The VoStone sales representative (a white male) frequently visited the Dal-Tile offices and interacted regularly with Dal-Tile employees, including the plaintiff (a black female). The sales rep was, as one employee described him, a “pig,” who admittedly made racial and sexual comments to Dal-Tile employees on an almost daily basis. Over the course of three years, he used the word “b****” freely, often discussed his sexual encounters, showed pictures of naked women, frequently made lewd comments, discussed having sex with a co-worker’s daughter, made references to “black girls” and “black b****es” (once in connection with the plaintiff), used racial slang, passed gas on the plaintiff’s phone, and (perhaps the topper) told the plaintiff that he was “as f***ed up as a n*****’s checkbook.” (I’m not sure “pig” fully captures the full essence of his character).
Unsurprisingly, the plaintiff was offended by the sales rep’s conduct. She told him to stop, but he didn’t. She told her supervisor about it, who did nothing. She told Human Resources about it, and the company eventually prohibited the sales rep from communicating with the plaintiff. She ended up taking a leave of absence, however, for depression and anxiety resulting from her concerns about possible future interactions with the sales rep. She resigned soon after returning to work, and then brought suit for sexual and racial harassment, among other things.
The district court threw out the plaintiff’s claims, finding that the conduct was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to constitute illegal harassment (what?!!), and that, even if it were, the company was not liable because it could not have known about the conduct since the plaintiff’s statements to her supervisor were not “complaints” (what?!!), and even further that, even if the statements were “complaints,” the plaintiff should have complained to someone else if she was unsatisfied with her supervisor’s response (what?!!).
On appeal, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed the district court’s rulings on these points. The 4th Circuit found that there was certainly sufficient evidence for a jury to find that the conduct was severe and pervasive. It also stated that a “negligence” standard should apply to claims of third party harassment – meaning that the employer would be liable if it knew or should have known of the harassing conduct. In this instance, the 4th Circuit found that the plaintiff did in fact complain – not only to her supervisor, but also to HR. In addition, the supervisor was present for some of the conduct. Therefore, there was evidence about the employer’s knowledge sufficient to support the plaintiff’s harassment claims, and the 4th Circuit sent the case back for a jury trial.
So, employers should be careful to respond to an employee’s concerns about their treatment by third parties – customers, clients, visitors, vendors, and suppliers. It’s part of everyone’s job to deal with unpleasant people from time to time – but when that unpleasantness targets a protected personal characteristic (like race, sex, religion, pregnancy, etc.), an employer has the obligation to step in and protect its employee.