Sexual harassment has been at the forefront of the news in recent weeks thanks to two major stories. One involves the allegations of sexual harassment against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain. The other is the twentieth anniversary this year of the sexual harassment allegations against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his confirmation process. The Christian Science Monitor recently published an article examining the history of sexual harassment as both a legal and social concept over the past 30 to 40 years, identifying six high profile cases that have raised public awareness of the issue. While sexual harassment is undoubtedly still a widespread problem across the country (and the world), it is worthwhile to occasionally review how far we have come.
1. Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson: Originally, quid pro quo was the only type of legally actionable sexual harassment. This type of sexual harassment occurs when an employee is required to submit to a supervisor’s sexual advances as a condition of employment (e.g., “sleep with me or you’re fired”). The Supreme Court’s 1986 ruling in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson expanded the definition of sexual harassment to include hostile work environment:
In sum, we hold that a claim of “hostile environment” sex discrimination is actionable under Title VII … and that the District Court did not err in admitting testimony about respondent’s sexually provocative speech and dress.
For more information on the differences between quid pro quo and hostile work environment sexual harassment, please visit our website here.
2. Jensen v. Eveleth Tavonite Co.: The first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit was filed in 1988 on behalf of Minnesota mining company employee Lois Jensen, who described a pattern of harassment and abuse beginning when she went to work there in 1975. The lawsuit continued until a settlement was reached in 1998. Jensen’s story was the subject of the 2005 Charlize Theron film “North Country”.
3. Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill: While Clarence Thomas awaited confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991, Hill went public with allegations of sexually suggestive remarks when she worked as his assistant years earlier. The Supreme Court confirmed Thomas, but the controversy served to make the whole country aware of the topic of sexual harassment, sparking a dialogue on what is and is not appropriate in the workplace.
4. General Larry Smith and Lieutenant General Claudia Kennedy: In 1999, Lt. Gen. Kennedy was the highest-ranking female officer in the Army and was nearing retirement. When she learned that General Smith was being considered for an inspector general position, which would involve investigating sexual harassment claims, she went public with allegations that he had touched her in an inappropriate and unwanted manner in 1996. An inquiry found that Smith had behaved inappropriately and his nomination was withdrawn.
5. Senator Bob Packwood: The Oregon senator resigned in 1995 when at least 29 women, including aides, interns, and campaign workers, came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and even possible assault. After several years of scrutiny and calls for ethics investigations by fellow senators, the Senate Ethics Committee recommended his expulsion from the Senate.
6. President Bill Clinton and Paula Jones: Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, filed suit against then-President Clinton in 1994, alleging incidents of harassment and inappropriate behavior. Although a judge dismissed the suit for lack of evidence of damages, the case brought the Monica Lewinski scandal to light and led to the president’s impeachment. He settled with Jones in 1998 and paid her $850,000.
One key case not mentioned in the article is Robinson v. Jacksonville Shipyard, which established that nude pin-ups in the workplace constitute sexual harassment, even if not directly targeted at the employee who found this offensive.
The Boston sexual harassment attorneys at The Law Office of Alan H. Crede, P.C. specialize in employment law and solely represent employees. If you are a victim of sexual harassment, please contact The Law Office of Alan H. Crede, P.C. through our website or at (617)973-6434 to schedule a confidential consultation.
More Sexual Harassment Blog Posts byThe Law Office of Alan H. Crede, P.C.:
Sexual Harassment Disproportionately Affects Restaurant Workers, Boston Employment Lawyer Blog (November 14, 2011)
Sexual Harassment Claims Against Herman Cain, Boston Employment Lawyer Blog (November 3, 2011)
Sexual Harassment Claims in Federal Court: Overcoming the Farragher/Ellerth Defense, Boston Employment Lawyer Blog (October 5, 2008)