Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Hostile work suits widened

Court rules those fleeing harassment can quit and sue

By Gina Holland
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled Monday that workers who quit over sexual harassment can sue their former employers but that companies should have a better chance to defend themselves.

The 8-1 decision was a mixed victory for the Pennsylvania police, sued by a woman who claimed her male bosses told her dirty jokes and urged her to perform sex acts. She said she quit to escape harassment.

Justices overturned a ruling in the woman's favor, but sent the case back to lower court.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, said Nancy Drew Suders' case included genuine issues of a hostile work environment.

But she said the appeals court did not give the state police an opportunity to defend itself, on grounds that it had a sincere and effective policy aimed at preventing and responding to harassment, and that Suders did not take advantage of the policy.

Suders' case raised a new issue for the Supreme Court, which had ruled earlier that employers can be on the hook for lawsuits over sexual harassment that results in some clear punishment for the employee, such as getting fired or demoted.

Suders claimed that in her situation, quitting was really the same thing as getting fired. Justices said people who voluntarily quit their jobs and then claim harassment are protected by a civil rights law but have a higher standard to prove that their rights were violated.

In the lone dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said that employers should be liable only if they are proven to be negligent in permitting sexually harassing behavior to occur.

Suders claims she quit her state police dispatcher job after enduring persistent harassment, including one boss who talked about oral sex and another supervisor who repeatedly acted out a sexually provocative wrestling stunt.

She claims she was harassed consistently during her five months on the job.


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Supreme Court: http://www.supremecourtus.gov

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