THE MAGAZINE

Harassment Lawsuits and Lessons

By Margaret Bryant

Renaee Henry was one of only 10 women among 400 men working at the PepsiAmericas Inc. plant in Chicago a few years ago. On the weekends, she was the only female on the premises. According to charges made by Henry, she endured sexual advances, degrading remarks, and obscene graffiti. When she complained, Henry alleges that her supervisor told her to “get used to it.” But Henry refused. Instead, in 2003, she filed a sexual-harassment claim against the company with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which took it to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Illinois. The parties recently agreed to an out-of-court settlement in which the company paid Henry $400,000.

In another case, in 2005, the EEOC required a manufacturing plant to pay $1.24 million to 20 Hispanic workers who were given less favorable terms of employment than non-Hispanic employees. In the case (EEOC v. Hamilton Sudstrand Corp., U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, No. 03-Z-1663, 2005), workers were subjected to ethnic slurs, refused promotion, and physically threatened.

In a third case (EEOC v. Family Dollar Operations, Inc., U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, 2004), a 61-year-old employee learned that he was to be fired or harassed into resigning because he was too old. He then learned that two other workers—both over 50 years old—had also been targeted by management in the same way. The employee resigned, sued the company, and won a $99,000 settlement.

These cases are but a few examples of the types of charges companies may face. In 2004 alone, nearly 79,500 total charges of discrimination were filed, according to the EEOC. Of these, the EEOC took on 415 cases.

To file a discrimination lawsuit, most individuals obtain a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC and then pursue the case with a private attorney. In some cases, the EEOC itself files suit on behalf of an individual. In 2003, the EEOC sued in 347 cases and obtained $149 million in compensation for plaintiffs, the highest monetary recovery for a single year since the EEOC was founded.

While details of the statistics for 2005 were unavailable when this article was being written, the 2004 numbers show that 266 cases (77 percent) were settled by consent decree—a judicial ruling that reflects a voluntary agreement between the two parties where a defendant agrees to cease the allegedly illegal activity, and in many cases also to pay a fine. In 44 cases (13 percent), the two parties agreed on a settlement out of court.

Plaintiffs won 19 lawsuits, slightly more than the 13 won by defendants. In nine cases, the plaintiff dropped the charges after the lawsuit had been filed.

Whatever the outcome of a case, companies must spend time and money defending themselves. Management can reduce organizational exposure to such charges and related costs by familiarizing themselves with the law and the circumstances that lead to employee claims.

Liability for workplace discrimination takes a variety of forms, all of which revolve around the classes of individuals protected under federal, state, and local fair employment practices laws. Since its enactment 42 years ago, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been the basis for myriad claims of unlawful discrimination. Over the years, the body of antidiscrimination law has evolved as workplaces have become more and more diverse, and as people from all social, economic, gender, religious, ethnic, and nationality groups work side by side.

Increasing diversity and awareness of rights among workers has meant a diversification of discrimination claims. In some cases, workplace conduct influenced by world events and politics has fostered new causes of action or stirred a resurgence of more traditional claims. Examples include harassment, both sexual and nonsexual, religious discrimination, and retaliation.

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