NH Court Extends Liability for Sexual Harassment

working.oldtypewriterA somewhat  notorious case that illustrates the difficulty of holding sexual harassers to account is in the news again..

The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled this month that an employee can be held liable for “aiding and abetting an unlawfully discriminatory practice committed by an employer” under the state’s anti-discrimination statute (RSA 354-A:2).

The ruling came in a case involving Fuller Oil Co. of Hudson, N.H. and its owner Frederick J. Fuller.

The company settled an EEOC sexual harassment complaint (without admitting liability) in 2005 by agreeing to pay five women a total of $750,000 and to institute company wide training in sexual harassment prevention. At the time, an EEOC official characterized Mr. Fuller as a “serial” sexual harasser.

In 2013, another EEOC sexual harassment complaint was filed charging Fuller with forcing office worker Nicole Wilkins to quit in 2011 when he allegedly grabbed and squeezed both of her breasts from behind while pinning her against her desk. The EEOC said the alleged assault was the culmination of a growing number of unwanted and inappropriate sexual comments and incidents of touching by Fuller. After Wilkins threatened to file an EEOC complaint, Fuller allegedly retaliated by firing Wilkins’ friend and co-worker, Beverly Mulcahey, for poor performance.

Fuller was subsequently arrested for the incident but settled that case by pleading no contest to a reduced charge of simple assault.

The company apparently refused to settle that case so the EEOC in 2014 filed a lawsuit charging both the company and Fuller with sexual harassment and retaliation. Fuller sought unsuccessfully to dismiss the case on the grounds that his behavior amounted to a single crude gesture and was not objectively offensive. The oil and propane company went bankrupt, which had the effect of staying the lawsuit against the company. Fuller’s attorney then argued that Fuller could not personally be held liable under New Hampshire’s anti-discrimination law for either sexual harassment or retaliation. A U.S. District Court judge asked New Hampshire’s highest court to interpret the state’s anti-discrimination law and decide whether it permits an individual employee to be held liable for aiding and abetting employment discrimination and  retaliation by the employer. New Hampshire’s high court answered “yes” this month.

The New Hampshire court noted the anti-discrimination law  provides that “any act of aiding, abetting, inciting, compelling or coercing another to commit an unlawful discriminatory practice, or attempting to do so, or obstructing or preventing any person from complying with the [law] is itself an unlawful discriminatory practice.”  The Court ruled that absolving individual employees from liability for aiding and abetting employment discrimination is “plainly inconsistent with the stated intent” of the law, which is to “eliminate and prevent discrimination in employment.” Furthermore, the court said individual employees can be held liable for retaliation.

The N.H. high court’s ruling permits Wilkins and Mulcahey to seek monetary damages from Fuller individually for aiding and abetting his former company’s alleged unlawful acts.


New Hampshire court adds ominous side note – state’s anti-discrimination law exempts employers with six workers or less.

The N.H. court’s ruling contains an ominous side note. The court noted that New Hampshire’s anti-discrimination law only applies to employers with six or more employees. The court said it is only logical to conclude that if an employer is exempt from the law, individual employees of the employer also are exempt from liability.  So God help workers who work for a New Hampshire company with fewer than six employees.

The case is U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, et al. v. Fred Fuller Oil Company, et al., Case No. 2015-0258 (Feb. 23, 2016).

Stopping Sexual Harassment

In the past, this blog has questioned why sexual harassment is not a criminal offense in the United States as it is in France.

Now the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed a second complaint against a business owner who is  characterized as a “serial” sexual harasser because he paid  $780,000 to five women in 2003 to settle a sexual harassment complaint.

The EEOC alleges that Fred Fuller Oil Company, a Hudson, N.H.-based oil company, violated federal law when  owner Fred Fuller sexually harassed two women, caused the constructive discharge of one, and fired the other.

Fuller allegedly forced Nichole Wilkins to quit in July 2011 after he sexually assaulted her by grabbing and squeezing both her breasts from behind while pinning her against her desk.  The EEOC says this assault was the culmination of a growing number of unwanted and inappropriate sexual comments and incidents of touching by Fuller. 

 Fuller then allegedly created a sexually hostile work environment for Wilkin’s friend and co-worker, Beverly Mulcahey. Shortly after Wilkins notified Fuller in October 2011 that she intended to file an EEOC charge of discrimination, Fuller fired Mulcahey for poor performance.

Déjà Vu

The EEOC sued Fred Fuller Oil Company in 2003 and settled that case in July 2005, winning  $780,000 in relief for five women.  As part of the settlement, the company agreed to undergo training aimed at conforming to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sexual harassment.

Markus L. Penzel, trial attorney in the EEOC’s Boston Area Office, said in a press release last month, “The Commission characterized Fred Fuller as a ‘serial sexual harasser’ in its first lawsuit.  Unfortunately, that still seems to be true.”

With sincere respect to Mr. Penzel, it is more than unfortunate that additional women were allegedly targeted by Fuller.  If the EEOC’s complaint is true, these women not only suffered emotional distress but were hounded out of their jobs, resulting in a loss of their financial well-being.

The women who worked for Fred Fuller Oil Co. probably have little in common with  Sherly Sanburg, the billionaire Harvard University graduate and  chief financial officer of Google. She implies in a recent bestselling book that women are partly responsible for their own lack of equality in the workplace. 

The reality is that victims of sexual harassment often are single mothers living paycheck-to-paycheck, with few other employment options, and college students who are trying to earn money to pay their tuition. These women are vulnerable, often not believed, sometimes blamed, almost always powerless and utterly disposable.   

Get Serious!

There’s been a lot of discussion about sexual harassment in the military as a result of publicity surrounding alleged improper sexual conduct of military officers who are responsible for protecting  women from sexual harassment. Surveys show that a third of American women report experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.

Employers have done far too little to halt sexual harassment and the EEOC lacks the resources to effectively address this problem. 

It appears that Fred Fuller  was not deterred by a monetary fine. He  also did not appear to  benefit from education about what constitutes improper sexual conduct in the workplace or training on  how to comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. What might have deterred Mr. Fuller?

 France’s  Law

France’s General Assembly enacted a new sexual harassment law on July 31, 2012 that includes criminal penalties of up to three years in prison.

New articles in the French Labor Code and the Penal Code state:

“Harassment is the fact of imposing on a person, in a repetitive fashion, statement or behavior of a sexual connation which violate a person’s dignity by virtue of their degrading or humiliating character or create as concerns such person an intimidating, hostile or offensive situation.”

Under the French law, it is considered an “aggravating circumstance” if a perpetrator of workplace sexual harassment is abusing his or her authority.

If Fred Fuller had snatched the purse of his first victim, he would have been lucky to get just a warning.  If he had continued this behavior, he would  have spent time in jail. That’s because stealing a  purse is a crime. 

Shouldn’t it be a crime to steal someone’s peace of mind and financial livelihood?