Court Report

Sexual Harassment Award for Same-Sex Touching Upheld

By Jeffrey L. Rhodes May 1, 2016
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0516cover.jpgAn employer must pay a $300,000 award to a former employee who was the victim of same-sex harassment by a co-worker, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

Rock-Tenn Services Inc., based in Norcross, Ga., failed to take appropriate action after the employee complained that a male co-worker repeatedly touched his buttocks, the appeals court found.

The suit was filed by Jeffry L. Smith, who worked as a support technician at the company’s Murfreesboro, Tenn., plant. In two incidents in late 2010, employee Jim Leonard touched or grabbed Smith’s buttocks. Both times Smith told him to stop, as the company’s sexual harassment policy requires before bringing such issues to a manager.

In June 2011, as Smith was bending over to pick up boxes, Leonard grabbed his hips from behind and began rubbing his crotch against Smith to simulate sex.

Professional Pointer

To avoid liability, employers should investigate sexual harassment complaints promptly and thoroughly and take appropriate corrective action.

Smith then reported all three incidents to the plant superintendent and documented the conduct in a letter. However, the company delayed the investigation because Smith’s supervisor was on vacation at the time. Smith was sent back to work in the same area as Leonard.

Although three managers ultimately recommended terminating Leonard, the general manager instead placed him on a short suspension—despite an earlier written warning for a similar complaint. Leonard had been warned that future misconduct would result in his discharge.

Smith was unable to work due to anxiety. He filed suit in U.S. District Court and was awarded $300,000 in compensatory damages. The appeals court affirmed that ruling.

  Jeffrey L. Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin PLLC in Arlington, Va.

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