Articles Tagged with sexual harassment

Passed 50 years ago in June, Title IX has had a profound and widely-recognized impact on girls’ and women’s sports. But Title IX did not only offer parity in sports. It has been instrumental in compensating victims of discrimination and harassment by teachers, coaches, professors and other students. Until now. The Supreme Court quietly eviscerated this right just before Title IX’s anniversary, with little fanfare or public outrage. In a decision superficially limited to the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act, the Court eliminated damages under Title IX – and Title VI — for emotional distress.

Victims of sex and gender-based discrimination and harassment have successfully used Title IX to obtain relief when recipients of federal funds have failed to enforce the law. In Hawaii, for example, a jury awarded $810,000 after a ninth-grade girl with the intellectual ability of a second grader was raped by an older boy from her class. The girl’s mother previously had expressed concerns to the school about this student. In California, a male student was alleged to have pressured a middle school girl into sending nude pictures and used those pictures to blackmail her into performing oral sex; students then posted pictures on social media of the female student performing oral sex. She obtained a $2 million dollar settlement. In Florida, a jury awarded a single plaintiff $6 million dollars after a teacher sexually abused her during her junior and senior years in school. The abuse included child pornography and forcible kissing and touching. The school had previously received reports of sexual abuse but failed to investigate. In Colorado, a school district settled a claim for $5 million dollars. A teacher was alleged to have sexually abused a student when she was nine years old. The school knew the teacher had a history of inappropriate conduct but failed to act to prevent the abuse. Based on the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Cummings v. Keller Premier Rehab, were claims like those brought today under Title IX, there could be no award for their depression, their suicide attempts, their eating disorders, their missed classes, their trauma.

In 1972, Congress enacted Title IX so that federal funds would not support discriminatory practices. The law bars educational programs or activities that accept federal funds from engaging in discrimination on the basis of sex. In other words, schools must take action to prevent and address sexual harassment and discrimination. Failing to do so could lead to the loss of important federal dollars (although in reality, that rarely if ever happens). Title IX was patterned after Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination by funding recipients with respect to race, color and national origin. Although neither statute expressly provides victims of discrimination with the right to sue in court, in 1979, after a female student alleged she was denied admission to medical school because of her sex, the Supreme Court held in Cannon v. University of Chicago, that Title IX (and Title VI) allowed her to sue in court. Over a decade later, in 1992, when a high school student sued alleging her teacher had sexually harassed and abused her, the Court confirmed that the right to bring suit included the ability to obtain money damages. This apparent expansion of rights may have peaked in the mid-90s: soon after, in its 1998 decision Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District,, the Court restricted when schools could be held liable for harassment.

A federal judge in the Western District of Oklahoma has denied Northeastern State University’s motion to dismiss a former employee’s claims of sexual harassment and retaliation under both Title VII and Title IX, after a coworker allegedly put his hands down her pants. 

 Deanie Hensley, the plaintiff in the action, worked for NSU in Tahlequah, Oklahoma for approximately 13 years. She alleged in her First Amended Complaint that multiple supervisors and co-workers engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior over that time, including sharing sexual cartoons and remarking on women’s bodies, but Hensley’s complaints resulted in no changes. After her complaint about a particular supervisor resulted in retaliation including stripping Hensley of job duties, she decided to take a position with a contract company that provided the university’s mail services. The joint employment with NSU and this company allowed her to continue working at NSU and using her expertise and familiarity with the NSU campus and personnel. However, Hensley alleges that one of the coworkers who had a habit of making offensive remarks sought her out on the job, then: “reached across the counter and put his hands down her jeans, with the backs of his hands against her stomach. He reached down to her panty line. He then pulled her belt buckle and shook it, commenting on how she had been ‘losing weight.'”  

 Shaken and traumatized by the assault, Hensley alleges that she complained to NSU campus police. Following even more complaints that the harasser was following Ms. Hensley and approaching near her in violation of a protective order, Hensley alleges in her Complaint that Steven Turner, NSU’s President, threatened the contract company with the loss of its contract if it did not remove Ms. Hensley from the NSU campus. Ms. Hensley alleges the inevitable result of this threat would be that she would lose her job–and that in fact, she did lose her job as a consequence. 

In February 2021, we posted about our clients’ quest for justice in their sexual harassment and retaliation class action against CRST Expedited, Inc.  At the time, we were waiting for a decision from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

A lot has happened since then…

The Court decided Plaintiffs’ appeal in this decision.  While the Court largely upheld dismissal of Plaintiffs’ claims, it also remanded back to the District Court Plaintiffs’ class retaliation claims for women who were removed from their trucks after reporting sexual harassment after July 2015.

This verdict of $910,000 is a reminder that employers are required to take prompt action when they become aware an employee is being sexually harassedAutozone’s failure to take action when it knew of the sexual harassment resulted in the highest sexual harassment verdict in North and South Carolina in 2018. The jury awarded $100,000 for emotional distress damages for Defendant’s violation of Title VII based on sexual harassment. It awarded $600,000 in punitive damages for the Title VII violation. In addition, the jury determined that the company was liable for intentionally inflicting emotional distress on the Plaintiff, awarding $150,000 in damages for severe emotional distress, and an additional $60,000 in punitive damages. Because Title VII caps allowable damages, the verdict was initially reduced to a total of $510,000.

AutoZoners, LLC appealed the verdict, asking for a new trial, and alternatively asking the Court to throw out $150,000 in emotional distress damages, along with $260,000 in punitive damages. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found there was no basis for a new trial, and that the jury’s award of damages for emotional distress under Title VII and “severe” emotional distress for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress was not duplicative. Thus, the Court upheld Plaintiff’s emotional distress damages award totaling $250,000, for violating Title VII and for intentionally inflicting emotional distress, only vacating the punitive damages award, because of  the standards for holding a company legally responsible for such damages.

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