Posted on Jul 31, 2017

Sexual harassment on the job remains a problem in many workplaces.

And most often, charges are filed by female employees against males. But in a recent case, the Tenth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals rejected a district court’s ruling that a man’s sexual harassment charges against a female supervisor were improperly handled. The appeals court sent the matter back for further review.

Facts of the Case

A male mechanic for a trucking firm sued his employer for sexual harassment caused by his direct supervisor, a female who also was a shareholder in the firm. The employee alleged that he was fired because he refused to have sexual relations with the woman.

The mechanic completed the intake questionnaire that’s required in order to file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). He checked the boxes for “Sex” and “Retaliation” as the reasons for his claim, as well as writing out “sexual harassment.”

In response to questions seeking more detailed explanations, the employee wrote “see attached,” referring to a six-paragraph statement he had prepared. The attachment concluded with the statement that he was terminated because he refused to agree to the supervisor’s sexual advances and rejected all such efforts by her.

Change of Form

Apparently, however, the EEOC didn’t receive the attachment, so it used a charge form based on the questionnaire alone. This form laid out the basics of the allegations, which were:

  • The mechanic was subjected to sexual remarks by his supervisor.
  • He complained about the sexual harassment to the general manager and other owners.
  • Nothing was done before the supervisor terminated his employment.

The charge, however, didn’t specify the information that was included in the attachment about unwanted sexual advances.

The EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter and the mechanic sued in federal court. He initially made two claims:

  1. “Quid pro quo” harassment, which occurs when a worker suffers an employment action such as termination for refusing a supervisor’s demands for sex, and
  2. Hostile environment harassment, which occurs when a course of conduct makes a work environment abusive.

He later dropped the hostile work environment claim.

The U.S. District Court dismissed the claim as being deficient because the charge form didn’t include the missing attachment spelling out the quid pro quo allegations. Undaunted, the mechanic appealed.

Different Outcome

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals was more sympathetic to the man’s plight. It determined that the charge form contained sufficient allegations to trigger an investigation into:

  • What the sexual remarks were
  • Why the employee was fired, and
  • Whether the two events were connected.

The court noted that the Supreme Court cautioned that the quid pro quo and hostile environment forms of sexual harassment aren’t “wholly distinct claims.” Instead, they’re shorthand for different ways in which such harassment can occur (see Ellerth, 524 U.S. at 754).

The appeals court refused to require that the charge be more specific about the type or form of harassment alleged. (Jones v. Needham , 2017 BL 159166, 10th Cir., No. 16-6156, 5/12/17 )

Background Information

The case highlights the two main types of sexual harassment that are subject to legal action under Title VII of the Civil Right Act:

1. Quid pro quo harassment. This occurs when employment decisions are determined by whether or not a person submits to sexual advances or demands. For instance, an employee may lose a promotion, a plum assignment or even his or her job if he or she doesn’t give in.

Specifically, unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute quid pro quo sexual harassment if:

  • Submission to such conduct is either explicitly or implicitly made as a term or condition of employment, or
  • Submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as the basis for employment decisions.

2. Hostile work environment. In this case, sexual harassment conduct makes the workplace intimidating, hostile or offensive to the point where it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.

In considering whether or not an environment is “hostile,” the courts will weigh several factors, including:

  • Whether the conduct was verbal, physical or both,
  • How frequently the conduct occurred,
  • Whether the conduct was hostile or patently offensive,
  • Whether the alleged offender was a coworker or supervisor,
  • Whether others joined in the harassment, and
  • Whether the harassment was directed at more than one individual.

Timing of a Claim

According to the EEOC, a hostile environment generally doesn’t result from a single incident or a few isolated incidents, unless the conduct is egregious. But a claim of sexual harassment is bolstered if the complaint is made soon after the event, even if it’s made after the worker quits or is fired.

Despite the distinctions between these two types of harassment, neither term is found in either Title VII or its regulations. It’s up to the EEOC to establish if there are grounds for a claim.

It’s a Woman’s (and a Man’s) World

Sexual harassment charges typically involve complaints by a female worker about a male coworker or supervisor.

However, as this case shows, sexual harassment may cross gender and sexual orientation lines. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), both the victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.

Although there are no exact statistics on the number of men being sexually harassed at work by women or how many actually file claims for sexual harassment, it’s likely that the cases filed with the EEOC represent a fraction of the total number of incidents. Some men may choose not to report sexual harassment or file a claim with the EEOC because they’re embarrassed or afraid of being subject to ridicule.

Nevertheless, claims by males clearly are on the rise. The EEOC reports that

92% of all claims in 1990 were filed by women as opposed to 83% in 2015, representing a 9% increase in claims filed by men in 25 years.