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Sexual Harassment
U.S. Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments In Two Employment Law Cases

The 2012-2013 term of the United States Supreme Court is currently in session, and the High Court recently heard oral arguments for two cases involving employment law issues.

The first case, Vance v. Ball State University, deals with the issue of what type of authority must an employee possess to constitute a “supervisor” for purposes of imposing strict liability on an employer for the actions of its supervisors, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The specific question in this case is whether an employer is strictly liable under Title VII for harassment by (a) employees who have authority to oversee and direct the work of the alleged victim, or (b) only those who have the authority to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline” the alleged victim.

This issue is significant, because of the landmark cases of Faragher v. City of Boca Raton and Burlington Industries, Inv. v. Ellerth, where the Supreme Court ruled that an employer is vicariously liable for severe or pervasive workplace harassment committed by a supervisor of the victim.

Currently, the different federal circuit are split on this issue.  The Second, Fourth, Ninth and Tenth Circuits have adopted a broader approach, and ruled that strict liability under Title VII extends to employees who have the authority to direct and oversee their victim’s daily work.  Additionally, the EEOC Guidelines also set forth a broader definition of “supervisor” as somebody who has the authority to direct employees’ daily work activities.  On the other hand, the First, Third, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits have adopted a narrower approach, and ruled that strict liability applies only for supervisors who have authority to “hire, fire, demote, promoted, transfer, or discipline” the alleged victim.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for this case on November 26, 2012.

The second case, Genesis Health Care Corp. v. Symczyk, deals with the issue of whether a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) becomes moot when the lone plaintiff receives an offer of judgment from the employer that fully satisfies the FLSA claim.

In this case, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the employer’s offer of judgment did not render moot a plaintiff’s claim under the FLSA.  The court reasoned that it did not want to enable employers to “pick off” individually-named plaintiffs in order to avoid FLSA collective action claims.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for this case on December 3, 2012.

Throwing a Holiday Party? Some Things to Consider

‘Tis the season for company-sponsored holiday parties.

Holiday parties are an excellent way for employers to boost employee morale, build camaraderie, and celebrate a successful year of business.  At the same time, however, employers should be cautious about the pitfalls that throwing a holiday party can bring.

Alcohol Issues

Employers should take caution when serving alcohol at a company-sponsored holiday party.  First and foremost, employers should make sure that somebody is checking the ID’s of anybody who consumes alcohol.  The purpose of checking ID’s is to avoid serving alcohol to a minor.

Second, employers should also make sure that any individual who is visibly intoxicated is not served any more alcohol.  The purpose of this is to avoid “dramshop” type liability for anybody who drinks at a company-sponsored party and then attempts to drive afterward.  It is also a good idea to provide several non-alcoholic drink options, so guests don’t feel like alcoholic drinks are their only option.

Third, employers should also provide guests with alternative forms of transportation if they are unable to drive, such as cab rides or designated drivers.

Fourth, in order to avoid some of the problems mentioned above, employers should remind employees (and their guests) to drink responsibly.

Finally, employers should also review their insurance policies to determine if they can serve alcohol at a company-sponsored party in the first place.

Sexual Harassment Issues

Oftentimes, when employees attend company-sponsored parties, they forget they are still in a work-related setting.  Once you add some alcohol into the mix, there is a potential that employees may engage in conduct that would violate a company’s anti-sexual harassment policy.  Therefore, employers should make sure to remind employees that the party is work-related, and that all workplace rules still apply at the party.

For example, while it may be festive to have somebody dressed in a Santa Claus suit during the event, employees should not be “sitting on Santa’s lap” because such behavior could be deemed inappropriate under Hawaii and Federal sexual harassment laws.  As another example, employees should be reminded to dress appropriately, so that they don’t dress in a manner that could be deemed inappropriate for a work-related event.

Other Issues

Employees should be reminded that the holiday parties are completely voluntary, and therefore, they are not required to attend the event.

Finally, employers should weigh the pros and cons of having a holiday party on a weekday versus the weekend.  If the party is on a weekday, the employees might not drink as much alcohol or get too rowdy, which alleviates some of the concerns above.  On the other hand, if employees do drink too much alcohol or stay up late, they might be unproductive at work the next day.  If the party is on a weekend, employers do not have to worry about employees’ loss of productivity on the day after the party, but there is a high likelihood the employees will consume more alcohol than they would on a weekday.

Employer Granted Summary Judgment Where Employee Failed to Report Harassment
In Adams v. O’Reilly Automotive, Inc., (8th Cir., August 15, 2008), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit granted an employer’s request for summary judgment, where the employer established (a) that it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any sexually harassing behavior and (b) the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage or any preventative or corrective opportunities. Summary judgment was granted under the Ellerth/Faragher affirmative defense.

As for element (a), the employer had a “zero tolerance” policy against harassment. The policy also provided for investigation of every report of sexual harassment and multiple channels of rporting. The court also noted that the employer’s single failure to respond to a prior complaint in the past did not establish a failure to follow the policy.

As for element (b), the court found that the employee’s failure to avail herself of the employer’s complaint procedure for over 2 1/2 years was unreasonable. In reaching this conclusion, the court rejected the plaintiff’s arguments that she did not report the harassment because she thought she needed a corroborating witness and that she feared retaliation.

Single Act Can Constitute Sexual Harassment

In a rather groundbreaking decision, the Hawaii Supreme Court recently ruled that even a single-act can constitute actionable sexual harassment under the law.  In reaching this decision, the court stated that conduct of a sexual nature can constitute harassment if it is pervasive OR severe.

The text of the court’s decision can be viewed here: Arquero v. Hilton Hawaiian Village.