The message: Prevent sex harassment High court sends signal to employers

November 10, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

When the Supreme Court ruled that a Tennessee worker does not have to prove she suffered psychological damage to win a sexual harassment case, it removed a roadblock to fighting such job discrimination.

It also sent a message to businesses everywhere.

"Having clear and forceful legal standards on sexual harassment is a message to employers that, first and foremost, they must prevent it," said Anne Ladky, executive director of Women Employed, a national advocacy and training group based in Chicago.

"This case is a very important victory for all working women."

Yesterday's 9-0 decision involved a former employee of Forklift Systems Inc., Teresa Harris, who sued the Nashville company over allegedly demeaning and vulgar comments by her boss. Lower courts had ruled that Ms. Harris must prove she suffered "serious psychological injury" because of such behavior.

The high court, however, said she must show only that the behavior created an environment "a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive."

Since law professor Anita Hill's testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991, sexual harassment in the workplace has become a major business concern.

The number of federal complaints filed by employees rose 53 percent in 1992 according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

John P. Rowe, district director of the EEOC in Chicago, expects the number of claims to increase because of yesterday's ruling. "When coupled with the 1991 Civil Rights Act that allows for damages for sexual harassment, both of these things tell women it is worthwhile to bring a claim," Mr. Rowe said.

He said it no longer will be necessary for victims to suffer from "extraordinarily egregious" behavior to file sexual-harassment suits.

And that, said Mr. Rowe, makes the decision a warning signal.

"This is the point at which employers should uniformly sit up and take notice and voluntarily reform their processes [in handling sexual harassment complaints]," he said. "It's now clear: Sexual harassment won't sell."

"It's going to have a major impact, because the publicity surrounding it affects not only people thinking of filing charges but also employers, human resource personnel and employment attorneys," said Kent Sezer, general counsel for the Illinois Human Rights Commission.

Mr. Sezer said that complaints will be taken seriously by employers and that efforts will be made to settle them before they get to the courts.

"Employers will be more responsive, because their attorneys will tell them that you have to do something or risk liability," he said.

Sheribel F. Rothenberg, an employment lawyer, said the decision "will have a beneficial effect on cases of sexual-harassment complaints pending right now on my docket. I also hope it will further sensitize businesses to the seriousness of sexual harassment issues."

,.5l The Supreme Court decision sends the case back to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which must decide whether a trial on Ms. Harris' allegations is needed.

The high court's decision is a wake-up call not only for employers but also for employees.

"It's going to empower women to come forward without fear of being retraumatized by the legal system," said Lynn Barr Weinrib, a clinical social worker and associate chief of clinical services at the Phoenix Institute, which runs group sessions for sexual-harassment victims.

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