When Churches Are Liable for Hostile Work Environments
What churches can learn from a recent sexual harassment case.
When Churches Are Liable for Hostile Work Environments
Image: Breather / Unsplash

This case study originally appeared in “ Creating Sexual Harassment Policies for Church Workplaces ,” a feature article in the March/April 2018 issue of Church Law & Tax Report.

A federal district court in Oklahoma ruled that a church could be sued on the basis of sexual harassment for the conduct of a supervisory employee even though it was not aware of it at the time it occurred. A female church employee (the "plaintiff") claimed that over the course of a year she was sexually harassed by her supervisor. The harassment included both language and physical conduct. The plaintiff resisted her supervisor's advances, and this led directly to a reduction in her hours.

The plaintiff reported the sexual harassment to the church. After doing so, her hours continued to be reduced until she was terminated. The church insisted that the plaintiff quit her job.

The plaintiff sued the church, alleging sexual harassment, and claiming that she was subjected to a sexually hostile work environment due to the actions of her supervisor. The court noted that "a plaintiff may prove the existence of hostile work environment sexual harassment in violation of Title VII where sexual conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment . . . For sexual harassment to be actionable, it must be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [the victim's] employment and create an abusive working environment.”

The church claimed that the plaintiff had not shown that any alleged harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of her employment. The court disagreed, and rejected the church's request that the lawsuit be dismissed:

The court finds plaintiff has set forth sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether she suffered sexual harassment that was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of her employment and create an abusive working environment. Specifically, plaintiff has submitted evidence that for a year . . . she was verbally and physically sexually harassed by her supervisor. . . .

The court rejected the church's argument that it could not be liable for the supervisor's conduct since it had no knowledge it was occurring. It observed, "An employer is subject to liability to a victimized employee for a hostile environment created by a supervisor with immediate (or successively higher) authority over the employee." Since the supervisor was the plaintiff's immediate supervisor having immediate authority over her, "whether the church had knowledge of any alleged sexual harassment is not dispositive of the church's liability."

Learn more about abuse prevention and protecting your church in the #MeToo era by joining our free webinar on April 18.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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