Sexual Harassment Claims in Federal Court: Overcoming the Farragher/Ellerth Defense

Employees who are victims of sexual harassment must take great care to protect their rights. The First Circuit’s decision in Chaloult v. Interstate Brands represents a broadening of the Farragher/Ellerth defense, which allows employers to escape liability even when an employee has clearly suffered inappropriate and demeaning conduct over a prolonged period of time.

The Farragher/Ellerth defense is an affirmative defense arising out of two 1998 Supreme Court decisions: Farragher v. City of Boca Raton, and Burlington Industries v. Ellerth. For the Farragher/Ellerth defense to be apply, an employer must satisfy two elements: (1) reasonable care was taken to prevent and promptly correct the harassing or discriminatory behavior, and (2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities provided.

In June 1999, Bonnie Chaloult began working at Interstate Brands in Biddeford, Maine. In August 2005, Chaloult resigned after a enduring a series of debasing remarks from her supervisor, Kevin Francoeur. Such remarks included:

Accusing Chaloult of having sexual relations with her direct supervisor
Complaining about his wife, his lack of sexual relations with her, and voicing his desire murder his wife
Asking about the distance between her nipples and telling her to go home and measure this distance
Asking her if her nipples chafed or stood out like headlights
Stating that her breasts were “melons” and “big hooters”
Asking her to hold her breath and push her chest out
Offering to go to her house and have sex with her
Stating that he wanted to see how far she could stick an eclair down her throat, stating “[i]f there isn’t enough cream in there, . . . I have plenty”
Asking Chalout’s manager, “How long have you [two] been fucking?”

Francoeur made many of these disparaging remarks both in front of Chalout’s co-workers as well as her manager. Ironically, the employer had a policy requiring all managers to all report sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct to Human Resources. Chalout’s manager failed to abide by this policy. Although Chalout’s letter of resignation did not detail specific instances of misconduct, it made clear that she no longer felt comfortable working at Interstate Brands because of statements made by Francoeur.

Approximately one year later, Chaloult filed a lawsuit based on, among other things, the sexual harassment she suffered from Francoeur. Surprisingly, the federal District Court of Maine accepted the Farragher/Ellerth defense on the basis that Chaloult failed to report specific instances of misconduct. The First Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. In doing so, both courts failed to acknowledge the reality of workplace. If your manager knows that your supervisor is subjecting you to such demeaning conduct, and fails to take remedial measures, how confident would you feel in voicing such concerns. Would you keep quiet to ensure to avoid possible retaliaton?