Sex-harrassment cases increase EEOC gears up

Working women

May 20, 1991|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

The number of sexual harassment cases filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is on the rise, the federal agency reports, and it is taking steps to resolve them much faster.

Sexual harassment is prohibited under Title 7 of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, enforced by the EEOC. The agency reports 5,600 complaints were made in 1990, up from 4,400 in 1986. The agency estimates it takes an average of 200 days to process a case.

To expedite things, the EEOC has issued from Washington sample pleadings that do a lot of the research work for lawyers suing. The agency has sent hundreds of samples to its attorneys and women's advocacy groups nationwide. The documents, including model petitions, affidavits, injunctions and restraining orders and listings of case law that apply, should reduce the hours of work attorneys had to do to file a claim.

The new activism also shows a commitment by the EEOC to ending sexual harassment. "We've found out that because of the very nature of these kinds of complaints, it takes a lot for women to come to us and make them," said Rosalie Gaull Silberman, EEOC vice chairwoman. "We ought to be looking at their claims quickly. That's why we're doing everything in our power to make sure we're responsive. This sends a clear signal to people in the field that they can get cases started immediately. . . . "

Kathleen King, a San Francisco attorney who successfully represented the Association of Professional Flight Attendants in a weight discrimination suit against American Airlines, says it's "exciting that the EEOC would issue sample pleadings."

"Although often with the EEOC you have to wait and see what happens," she said, "my recent experience with EEOC in the American Airlines settlement was very good. This new procedure gives a lot more recognition to the problem of sexual harassment."

There's another change. EEOC previously encouraged women who sued to try "reconciliation" with employers and to go to court only when that failed. But its new directive

tells its 50 offices that with charges of "serious" sexual harassment, its lawyers should go to court right away and request an injunction from a federal judge ordering the employer to stop the harassment pending further investigation.

The EEOC's Silberman was asked to define a "serious" situation. "We mean a case in which a woman is harassed physically and is in physical danger in the traditional sense of the word," she said. "And it also applies where the environment is of such a repulsive nature that there is real psychological danger."

"Injunctive relief [an order to stop alleged harassment] has always been available in these cases, but it's been rarely used," said Valerie Hoffman, a partner at a Chicago law firm. Hoffman represents employers in matters involving labor and employment relations.

Hoffman said that in the past five years, "many employers have instituted strong policies against sexual harassment."

The management attorney, who describes the new procedures as "an important tool in the EEOC tool box," advises all employers to have "complaint procedures in place and to train your supervisors so that when they receive a complaint they notify the human resources office immediately. Also, make sure the complaint is investigated immediately and that there is a prompt resolution, including any disciplinary action, if appropriate, up to and including discharge."

Though the new EEOC directives are "useful," a leading civil rights attorney has reservations. "These are not steps that will eliminate the widespread problem of sexual harassment," said Marcia Greenberger, managing attorney of the National Women's Law Center in Washington.

Title 7 allows back pay but not monetary damages for economic or psychological injury, Greenberger says.

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