Employers’ Liability for Sexual Harassment

A Washington court recently ruled on this matter.

Church Law and Tax1992-11-01Recent Developments

Employment Practices

A Washington state appeals court ruled that the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle was liable for handicap discrimination and negligent supervision of a supervisor who sexually harassed a female employee. The archdiocese maintains a conference facility that hired a female housekeeper. A few years later, the archdiocese hired a male as director of maintenance at the facility. The housekeeper alleged that the new maintenance director began sexually harassing her shortly after he began his job. The harassment consisted of numerous sexually explicit and offensive statements. The maintenance director eventually was fired. At about this same time, the housekeeper injured her hand while working, and had to have surgery. Following the surgery, the housekeeper returned to work for a brief time before she underwent a second surgery. When she left for this second surgery, she alleged that her new supervisor assured her that there “would always be a place for her” at the conference facility and that another employee would fill her position only on a temporary basis. Eight months later, the housekeeper was released by her doctor to return to work. When she returned to work, she was informed by her supervisor that her position had been filled after she had been absent for 60 days. She was not notified of any other job openings nor offered any other jobs with the archdiocese, even though there were 3 job openings at the conference facility following her discharge. The housekeeper sued the archdiocese, alleging handicap discrimination and negligent supervision of her former supervisor who had sexually harassed her. A jury awarded her $150,000 in damages, and the archdiocese appealed. A state appeals court upheld the jury’s verdict. In upholding the handicap discrimination portion of the verdict, the court noted that once the employee demonstrated that she was handicapped, and that she was qualified to fill vacant positions, then the burden “shifts” to the employer “to demonstrate a nondiscriminatory reason for refusing to accommodate” the employee. The court noted that the housekeeper had established that she was handicapped (because of her hand injury), and that 3 job openings later occurred that she was qualified to fill. Accordingly, the archdiocese then had the duty to demonstrate that it had a valid nondiscriminatory reason for not “accommodating” the housekeeper by taking affirmative measures to notify her of the job openings. The court insisted that when an employee becomes handicapped on the job, the employer has a continuing duty to inform the employee of job openings beyond the termination of the employer-employee relationship—until such time as “such attempts to accommodate become an undue burden rather than a reasonable requirement.” Since the archdiocese failed to notify the former employee of these job openings, and failed to demonstrate a nondiscriminatory reason for not doing so, the former employee had proven her claim of handicap discrimination. Finally, the court also upheld the jury’s conclusion that the archdiocese was liable for the former supervisor’s sexual harassment of the housekeeper on the basis of its “negligent supervision” of him. The archdiocese had claimed that the state workers compensation law provided an exclusive remedy to the former employee for her work-related injuries (including sexual harassment) that prevented her from suing for negligent supervision. The court rejected this argument, noting that the workers compensation law is an exclusive remedy only with respect to injuries that “arise naturally out of employment.” Sexual harassment, noted the court, “does not arise naturally out of employment because the physical proximity of victim and harasser occurs in the workplace only coincidentally.” This case is important for the following reasons. First, it suggests that employers (that are covered by handicap discrimination laws) may have a continuing duty to notify a former employee of job openings after the termination of the employer-employee relationship, if the former employee became disabled in the course of his or her employment. Second, the case demonstrates that religious employers can be liable on the basis of negligent supervision for the sexual harassment inflicted by their employees. This makes it essential for churches and denominational agencies to implement a sexual harassment policy. Tips on developing such a policy were discussed in a feature article in the March-April 1992 edition of this Church Law & Tax Report newsletter. Wheeler v. Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, 829 P.2d 196 (Wash. App. 1992).

See Also: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 | Cases Finding Denominations Liable

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