Developments In Harassment Law: Update For 2002-2003

Wayne N. Outten and Piper Hoffman, the 20th Annual Upper MidWest Employment Law Institute, May 28-29, 2003, St. Paul, MN.

The standard for employer liability depends on whether the harasser was a co-worker or a supervisor of the victim. If the former, the employer is liable only if it was negligent; if the latter, the employer is strictly liable, subject to the affirmative defenses discussed [within].

The Supreme Court observed that Title VII was enacted not only to provide redress for unlawful discrimination, but also to prevent such discrimination. The goal of preventing discrimination would be promoted, the Court held, by imposing on employers strict liability for the conduct of their supervisors under certain circumstances, because, as between employers and employees, the employers are better able to prevent discrimination by such supervisors. Specifically, the Court held that an employer is strictly liable for a supervisor’s sexually harassing behavior whenever the supervisor is the employer’s “alter ego” or the supervisor has taken a “tangible employment action” against the employee; examples of such actions include “hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.” Ellerth at 761. The Court found that the occurrence of a tangible employment action justified holding an employer liable for its supervisor’s harassment because the action could not have been taken absent the agency relation.