School Liable for Principal’s Sexual Harassment of School Employees

Don’t ignore accusations of sexual misconduct.

Church Law and Tax 1997-11-01

Sexual Harassment

Key point. Churches may be liable for sexual harassment if they do not respond promptly and effectively to employee allegations of sexual harassment.

! A federal appeals court ruled that a church—operated school was guilty of sexual harassment as a result of its failure to address its principal’s offensive behavior with several female employees. A denominational agency operated a residential school for emotionally and physically impaired children. Over the course of several years, the principal of the school was accused on many occasions of sexual harassment by female employees. There was substantial evidence that school officials were aware of many of these complaints. In 1993, school officials launched an investigation into the sexual harassment charges. They found that there was a significant basis to the harassment complaints. The school suspended the principal for five days without pay, ordered him to submit to a psychological assessment and placed him on three months’ probation. It also invited an outside consultant to conduct several days of seminars on sexual harassment. Even after this corrective action, there were several instances of inappropriate behavior involving the principal. During this same year, the principal was given a satisfactory performance evaluation and a raise. Several female employees who had been harassed by the principal sued the denominational agency on the ground that it was legally responsible for the principal’s acts because of its failure to respond adequately to the accusations against him. The women claimed that school officials “moved slowly” in dealing with the principal because he was African—American, and they were concerned about being sued for racial discrimination. In fact, the principal threatened on numerous occasions to file a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A trial court ruled in favor of the women, and awarded them $300,000 in damages.

A federal appeals court upheld this ruling. It referred to the “long—term, ostrich—like failure” by denominational and school officials to “deal forthrightly with [the principal’s] treatment of female employees.” The court observed that “the jury was entitled to conclude that [the agency] not only looked the other way for many years but that its corrective action was woefully inadequate, as demonstrated by [the principal’s] later conduct.”

Application. This case illustrates the importance dealing promptly with complaints of sexual harassment. Letting years pass without addressing complaints of harassment will only increase significantly a church’s risk of liability. The agency finally acted in 1993-by suspending the principal for five days, ordering a psychological assessment, imposing a three—month probationary period, and inviting consultants to conduct sexual harassment training. These acts may seem thorough and adequate, but the court concluded that they were not sufficient to avoid liability for sexual harassment, because (1) the complaints against the principal had occurred over so many years; (2) the principal’s acts of harassment were so pervasive; (3) the agency waited years before acting; (4) the agency’s response was insufficient, since the principal continued to engage in harassment even after he was disciplined; and (5) the principal received a satisfactory employee evaluation and a raise during the same year that he was disciplined for harassment. These are “warning signals” that church leaders should heed. Also, note that the court acknowledged that the agency had “moved slowly” in responding to the complaints against the principal out of a fear of being sued for racial discrimination. However, the court not only rejected the relevance of such a concern, but suggested that it helped prove the victims’ claims of harassment. The lesson is clear-employers should not delay responding to allegations of sexual harassment on the ground that the alleged offender is a member of a protected group. Jonasson v. Lutheran Child and Family Services, 115 F.3d 436 (7th Cir. 1997). [Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Application of Federal Labor and Discrimination Laws to Private Schools]

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