SEXUAL HARASSMENT CLAIMS PROVE COSTLY TO TENNESSEE COUNTY
Updated: May 17
By: Debra D. Owen
March 30, 2021
By U.S. District Court Order entered March 24, 2021, Cumberland County, Tennessee will pay $1.1 million to ten women and their attorney due to claims that a supervisor sexually harassed the women in violation of Title VII. The Order resolves a lawsuit the U.S. Department of Justice filed after conciliation efforts between the EEOC and Cumberland County failed.
The lawsuit alleged that four women who filed complaints with the EEOC, as well as six other women, were subjected to unwelcome, nonconsensual sexual contact between February 2015 and February 2018. The women, who worked for the County’s former Solid Waste Department Director, alleged that he kissed, grabbed and groped them; encouraged them to touch him inappropriately; propositioned them; made offensive remarks about their bodies and sex acts; and pressured them for sexual favors in exchange for employment benefits. One woman alleged that he threatened to rape her and that she quit her job as a result. The women said the misconduct occurred almost daily and that they asked him to stop, pushed him away or otherwise tried to avoid his advances. Some claimed that they reported the harassment to their supervisors but that nothing was done. Others said they were unaware of the complaint process, that they did not think the county mayor who would receive a report was impartial or that they feared termination.
In addition to the monetary relief, Cumberland County will implement revised sexual harassment policies and procedures; ensure distribution to and training about the revised policies and procedures for all current and new employees; retain documentation of those efforts and keep all documents relating to written or verbal complaints of sexual harassment; and provide reports to the DOJ at six -month intervals for the next eighteen months.
The allegations in the lawsuit and the terms of the settlement by which the suit was resolved are instructive to employers, including state and local governments. Employers must be aware of what constitutes discrimination under Title VII, including sexual harassment. Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.
Second, employers should ensure that policies and procedures that are consistent with current law, including a clear complaint process, are in place and that employees are made aware of those. Employers should train employees to ensure that they understand how to recognize and report sexual harassment. Employers should keep accurate and complete records of complaints and the resulting investigations, which should be completed promptly and impartially. Employers must create a workplace culture that demands all employees be treated with respect and that demonstrates no tolerance for harassment. An employer without these measures in place should contact legal counsel or otherwise seek advice to implement them.
In a press release announcing the settlement with Cumberland County, Acting U.S. Attorney Mary Jane Stewart for the Middle District of Tennessee stated:
“No individual should have to endure the unwanted sexual advances of another, especially from someone who wields a position of authority over another as alleged here. We will seek all available remedies to address such unwanted and unlawful conduct and will continue to protect the civil rights of all of our citizens. They deserve nothing less.” (Emphasis added.)
As the saying goes, “forewarned is forearmed.” Pay attention to this case and make sure the EEOC and/or DOJ will have no reason to pursue similar claims in your workplace.
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-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------  The former director has been indicted and awaits trial in state court on criminal charges related to these allegations.