Crime & Sexual Harassment

_41030565_mugging_203_bbcWhy isn’t sexual harassment a crime in the United States?

 It is in France.

 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 and a fine of approximately $56,000 for serious cases.

 The new French law defines harassment as imposing on someone, in a repeated way, words or actions that have a sexual nature and either undermine the person’s dignity because of their degrading or humiliating nature or create an intimidating, hostile or offensive situation.

 In the United States, sexual harassment is prohibited by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The remedy is civil, which means it is up to the victim to sue and the damages are monetary and/or  injunctive relief.  In criminal cases, a prosecutor sues on behalf of the state and may seek  fines and imprisonment.

It can be very difficult to win a sexual harassment case in the United States. The  U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that U.S. law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious.  This leaves a lot of room for interpretation by judges, especially with respect to whether sexually harassing conduct  is frequent enough  and severe enough to be actionable.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently announced that WirelessComm, a Northern California distributor for the Metro PCS cell phone service provider, had agreed to pay $97,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by the agency.

 According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, the store manager of WirelessComm in Watsonville, CA,    subjected then-19-year-old Deisy Mora to abuse throughout her seven months of employment at the store

He frequently commented about her physical  appearance, texted her photos of himself and the words “Te quiero” (‘I love  you’ in Spanish), and referred to women in general with slurs and epithets.

In addition, the EEOC said, the store owner  contributed  to the harassmen by inviting Ms. Mora to travel with him, asking her and others if  they were pregnant and, on one occasion, asking her to text photos of herself  and other female staff members.

The EEOC says Ms. Mora’s complaints were not addressed and she eventually quit her job  when she could no longer endure the harassment.

 What happened to the store manager and the store owner?

Under the consent decree, WirelessComm agreed to train the store owner and staff regarding anti-discrimination laws.  But there is no indication the WirelssComm store owner and store manager didn’t understand anti-discrimination laws in the first place, only that they didn’t place any importance on these laws and didn’t follow them.

The EEOC said  WirelessComm also  agreed to hire an equal employment opportunity consultant and a human resources consultant to revise its EEO policies; monitor the workplace; respond to any allegations of harassment arising during the three-year  pendency of the decree; and report harassment complaints to the EEOC.

In other words, WirelessComm will start following the law.

In  the final analysis, it seems like a small price  to pay for a campaign of a harassment waged by two adult men in positions of authority against a  vulnerable teenager.  If the store owner and store manager had mugged Ms. Dora while she was walking down a street, they’d probably spend at least some time in jail.  Here  they stole  her peace of mind and robbed her of  financial security in a time of high un employment.

 The United States recognizes two types of sexual harassment: (1) quid pro quo and (2) hostile environment.

 Quid pro quo is Latin for “this for that.” This type of harassment occurs when a  boss or supervisor asks for a sexual favor in return for a job benefit.

 Hostile environment sexual harassment occurs when the harassment is so severe or pervasive that it creates a sexually intimidating or abusive work environment. Hostile environment sexual harassment must be:

  • based on sex (sexual conduct, sexual comments, or nonsexual conduct that is based on your gender);
  • unwelcome (you must show that you do not enjoy the harasser’s attention and that you are not encouraging it); and either
  • severe (one or more serious incidents that affect your job) or pervasive (a pattern or series of smaller incidents that are so widespread that you have trouble doing your job as a result).

SEXUAL HARASSMENT, DINE EQUITY & PEANUTS

peanutsThe EEOC has been settling lawsuits at a frenzied pace of late, some for the monetary equivalent of peanuts.

This week, the EEOC settled for $1 million a sexual harassment case filed against IHOP restaurants in New Mexico that are owned and operated by Fahim Adi.  The EEOC says the case is the second-largest litigation settlement ever reached by the EEOC’s Albuquerque Area Office.  An EEOC press release says:  “At least 22 women are expected to receive relief through the decree.”

If it  is only  22 women and they split full amount of the award equally among themselves  – without any deductions by the EEOC for fees and costs – they will each get about $45,454.

I submit that this is not a large amount of money for women – some were teenage girls – whom the EEOC says were subjected to sexually offensive conduct by Lee Broadnax, then manager of the defendant’s IHOP restaurant. The EEOC doesn’t go into details but says Broadnax’ illegal conduct included sexual comments, innuendo and unwanted touching (i.e., otherwise known as battery).

Some of the women were forced to quit their jobs because IHOP did nothing when they complained.  People who work as servers at a pancake house generally are not well-to–do and this is not an economy where jobs are easy to find.  Some of the victims were pretty college girls en route to a better future but others were mature women (including several members of a minority group).

One wonders how many IHOP  employees were forced to tolerate abuse because they had children to feed at home and no other options?

The figure of $1 million particularly pales when one considers the IHOP brand is owned by Dine Equity, Inc., which is based in Glendale, California and also owns the Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar brand.

According to Nation’s Restaurant News  magazine, Dine Equity had $7.9 billion in food service sales in 2011, making it  the ninth rranked in the United States for  “systemwide foodservice sale.”  For the quarter ending Sept. 30, 2012, DineEquity’s net income almost quadrupled to $58.7 million.  DineEquity operates almost entirely through subsidiaries and over 400 franchisees, which operate 1,842 Applebee restaurants and 1,535 IHOPs  around the world.

Dine Equity  vigorously enforces any encroachment upon the the IHOP brand.   One wuld hope that Dine Equity also would vigorously enforce the human rights of employees in IHOP and Applebee restaurants.  What could Dine Equity do?  For one thing, Dine Equity could train franchisors to follow  discrimination laws and respond appropriately to complaints. Dine Equity also could get rid of franchisors that tolerate hostile work environments and fail to respond to discrimination complaints.  Now that would get their attention!

Don’t get me wrong. If the EEOC had not taken on this case, it is quite possible that some of these victims would not have gotten anything at all (except, possibly Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome).  Courts seem to be utterly unsympathetic to victims of employment-related discrimination these days, which is probably why it is so prevalent in society. Poor people can’t afford to hire lawyers and pay court costs.  But lets get real – $1 million is  not exactly a windfall for people who likely suffered emotional trauma and stress and whose lives were completley upended by an IHOP franchisor.

In addition to the monetary relief, the decree prohibits the defendants’ IHOP restaurants from further discriminating or retaliating against its employees and requires IHOP to implement policies and practices that will provide its employees a work environment free of sex discrimination and retaliation. The defendants must also provide its employees in Bernalillo and Sandoval County IHOPs with anti-discrimination training and notice of the settlement.

In this case, the IHOP franchisor ignored the women’s sexual harassment complaints. Training cannot solve an employer’s lack of motivation to protect its workers from sex discrimination.

Band-Aid Not Enough in Sexual Harassment Case

NOTE:  On 1/23/13, a federal judge  denied a request from a lawyer for Paul’s Big M Grocer to reduce the $467,269 punitive damages portion of the jury verdict against the store, former manager Allen Manwaring and the store’s owner, Karen Connors.

A federal appellate court panel has issued an important ruling that it is not enough for employers to pay off victims of sexual harassment. They also must fix the underlying problem that led to the harassment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York ruled on Oct. 19, 2012 that a lower court abused its discretion in denying any injunctive relief in a sexual harassment case brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Injunctive relief is essentially a court order that requires the employer to stop the practices that led to the discriminatory conditions.

“At minimum, the district court was obliged to craft injunctive relief sufficient to prevent further violations of Title VII by the individual who directly perpetrated the egregious sexual harassment at issue in this case,” ruled a three-judge panel of the appeal courts.

The case, EEOC v. Karenkim, Inc., 11-3309 (2nd Cir. 2012), involved  Paul’s Big M Grocer, which is owned by Karenkim, Inc.,  in Oswego, New York. Karenkim  was found liable for sexual harassment and fostering a sexually hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The jury awarded the ten members of the class of defendants a total of $10,080 in compensatory damages and $1,250,000 in punitive damages. The  award was subsequently reduced pursuant to a statutory cap to a total of $467,269.

The store is owned and managed by Karen Connors, who hired the store manager, Allen Manwaring, in 2001.  Connors and Manwaring almost immediately began a romantic relationship and now are engaged and have a son together. Women who worked at the store, some as young as 16, complained to no avail that they were being sexually harassed by Manwaring. Some were  terminated after filing a complaint.

At one point, Manwaring was actually arrested and pled guilty to second degree harassment after he approached an employee, a  high school student, who was talking on the phone, stuck his tongue in her mouth as she was talking and then walked away “with a smirk on his face.”    In deposition testimony, Connors said she did not believe Manwaring had done anything wrong and accepted his explanation that he had “falleninto” the girl.

The store had no anti-harassment policy until 2007 and no formal complaint procedure until after the trial.

 The EEOC asked the court for an injunction because the store had “not adopted adequate measures to ensure that harassment of the kind at issue in this action does not recur.”  Specifically, the EEOC noted that Connors and Manwaring remained in a romantic relationship, that Manwaring still worked at the store as a produce contractor, and that following the verdict Manwaring continued to deny he had engaged in sexual harassment.

The district court denied the EEOC’s request for injunctive relief, ruling it was unnecessary and overly burdensome in that it would require the defendant to “alter drastically its employment practices …”

The appeals court said that ordinarily terminating a lone sexual harasser might be sufficient to eliminate the danger that the employer will engage in subsequent violations of Title VII. In this case, however, the Appeals Court noted that Manwaring,  the store manager, engaged in harassing conduct that was “unchecked for years” because he was involved in a romantic relationship with the owner – a relationship that continues.

The appeals court panel said the EEOC’s requested ten-year proposed injunction was overly broad but that the lower court at least should have prohibited the store  from directly employing Manwaring in the future and from entering the store premises. In addition to those provisions the EEOC had asked the court to order KarenKim to hire an independent monitor for the store.

The appeals court concluded that under Title VII, “[i]f the court finds that the respondent has intentionally engaged in or is intentionally engaging in an unlawful employment practice charged in the complaint, the court may enjoin the respondent from engaging in such unlawful employment practice, and order such affirmative action as may be appropriate. … Once a violation of Title VII has been established, the district court has broad, albeit not unlimited, power to fashion the relief it believes appropriate.”

Canadian Jury Puts Employers on Notice

Kudos to Beverly Peterson at Our Bully Pulpit for noting this story from The Windsor Star newspaper, which highlights the contrast between the United States and Canadian legal systems with respect to workplace bullying.

Targets in the United States have little legal recourse in the legal system. There is no law against workplace bullying. If they  somehow make it to court – usually alleging some form of discrimination –  it is probable that a federal judge will dismiss their case before it ever reaches a jury.  It’s a different story in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, which has a law and where a target of bullying recently won a $1.4 million award after she was bullied out of her job at Walmart.

The Canadian jury of three men and three women, who decided that Boucher was constructively dismissed — in other words, forced out through abusive treatment — awarded her: from Walmart, $200,000 for intentional infliction of mental suffering, $1 million for punitive damages, and $10,000 for assault; and from her former supervisor, Jason Pinnock, $100,000 for intentional infliction of mental suffering, and $150,000 for punitive damages. .

Here’s an excerpt from an article by a University of Windsor professor who analyzes the significance of the verdict:

 The $1.46-million award a former Walmart assistant manager won this week in Windsor for mistreatment by a boss could make workplaces more civil across Canada, says an expert on workplace bullying.

The Windsor ruling — the highest such award in Canadian history — for the first time has turned mass media attention to bullying at work, instead of simply, say, bullying at school.

“This is the big case and it’s going to change the way Canadians see workplace bullying, absolutely,” said Jacqueline Power, a University of Windsor assistant professor of business management who specializes in workplace bullying. “It’s similar to what sexual harassment was 20 years ago. People just had to put up with sexual harassment in the workplace. Then they started having large legal judgments and human resources departments began to take it seriously.”

Power said Ontario’s Bill 168, introduced in 2009 to protect workers from violence and harassment on the job, set the stage. But she said enforcement didn’t follow as promised, so it fell to court cases to lay out the law — starting with Meredith Boucher.

Last month Boucher launched a lawsuit against Walmart, where she had worked for 10 years, after she felt forced to leave the company in November 2009. A jury agreed the 42-year-old Chatham woman suffered daily abuse from Jason Pinnock, 32, then the manager of the east Windsor Walmart where she worked, who would berate her with profane and insulting language over six months, often in front of others.

She filed a suit alleging intentional infliction of mental suffering, sexual harassment and discrimination, and assault by an assistant manager who punched her in the arm two days in a row and was subsequently fired.

The jury of three men and three women gave her nothing for sexual harassment and discrimination, but handed her a whopping award for her other claims: $1.21 million against Walmart and $250,000 against Pinnock.

Power said the judgment sets another precedent beyond being the richest such award in Canada. She said it also marks the first time someone has successfully won for general bullying by a boss, without the victim having to fall into a special category of female, visible minority, gay or anything else.

“This is the first time that we have recognized that you can be a white male and still be treated badly at work,” she said, noting the irony that it took a woman to fight for such protection for all. “In the United States, they have decided explicitly that they will not enforce civility. But in Canada, we now look after white men, as well.

“So it’s an extremely brave thing for this person to bring it to court. And because she was so brave, she has changed the legal environment for all employees.”…

Boucher’s lawsuit is actually only the first of four against Walmart Canada,  all by female assistant managers seeking at least $500,000 in damages, all from the same store, all alleging the same thing in 2009 and 2010: abusive treatment by a manager….

“We are disappointed with the decision and surprised by the highly exceptional damages that have been awarded,” said Andrew Pelletier, vice-president of corporate affairs and sustainability for Walmart Canada. “We’re reviewing the decision in detail now and we will consider all options, including the possibility of an appeal.”

Pelletier said he is surprised not just by the size of the judgment but by the allegations.

A number of Walmart employees have launched suits against the company in the United States, however, where some workers have recently threatened to strike, despite the fact they are not unionized….

The woman at the centre of the case, meanwhile, says only one person treated her abusively but that it affected her deeply. Court heard that Boucher spoke to senior Walmart managers about the abuse several times. Not only was nothing done about it, she was told she would be held accountable for her accusations.

She became physically ill, lost weight, sought counselling, and was treated for stress. And then she took it to court, risking having to pay Walmart’s substantial court costs if she lost.