You’re Damned If You Are Sexually Obsessed With an Employee

Posted: August 15, 2013 in Discrimination, Hiring and Firing, Lawsuits, Sexual Harassment, Uncategorized

I written before about how an employer can be damned when supervisors have sex with employees: https://damnedif.com/category/sexual-harassment/.

 

But being obsessed and pursuing a relationship can be just as damning. Take the recently-reported case at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”) MCAD v. Illumina Media. The employer is on the hook (subject to potential appeals) for a sizable award because, the MCAD found, one of the company’s owners made repeated sexual advances to a female employee, even though she repeatedly rejected them. This was the case even though, the MCAD found, the female employee actively participated in a sexually charged workplace atmosphere, where sexual innuendo and horseplay were commonplace and people looked at pornographic images on the internet.

 

The case reads like a made-for-TV movie of the week. The female employee started at Illumina as a 24 year old. According the case report, the company owner was at first friendly, but soon started to make comments about his sexual prowess with much younger women, and then suggested that he and the victim were “on a date.” The employee thought that these comments were strange and inappropriate, and would often reply that “it’s not happening” or “it will never happen.” Undaunted, the owner continued his pursuit, according to the report, and escalated the behaviors by explicitly asking for sex on a number of occasions, which the employee refused. The actions went downhill from there, according to the report. You can find a link to the decision here: http://www.mass.gov/mcad/documents/MCAD%20&%20Brooke%20Anido%20vs%20Illumina%20Media%20LLC%20dba%20Illumina%20Records%20&%20Ronald%20Bellanti.pdf

 

It does not appear that Illumina strongly or effectively contested that the owner aggressively pursued a sexual relationship with the employee. The MCAD Hearing Officer found Illumina and the owner liable for quid quo pro sexual harassment (generally thought of as conditioning a job or employee benefits on succumbing to sexual advances) as well as for constructive discharge. The MCAD reasoned that by treating the employee differently after she rejected the owner’s sexual harassment, Illumina could be held liable for quid quo pro sexual harassment. The decision was upheld after an appeal to the Full Commission of the MCAD.

 

Illumina and the owner were ordered to pay $75,000 in emotional distress damages and nearly $10,000 in lost wages. These two figures are subject to 12% interest from the date of filing the Complaint, which was a staggering six years prior to the decision of the Full Commission. Thus, interest will run at about 71%, adding $60,000 to this figure. The defendants are also liable for the employee’s legal fees and costs of over $62,000. Assuming that Illumina spent a similar amount on legal fees, the total out of pocket for the company appears to be at least $270,000, barring any further appeal.

 

While the facts here appear to be fairly egregious, the case should serve as a warning to all employers. Owners and managers, as human beings, will inevitably be attracted to subordinate employees. If you are a company of any significant size, there is no doubt that there are such attractions occurring right now at your business. You need to train all of your managers on how to deal with these issues (a subject for another post), or you could be on the hook for $270,000 or much, much more. Mangers and owners can easily fall into the trap of thinking that a loose environment means that anything goes in the workplace. But this case proves that such thinking can lead to big trouble.

 

By Adam P. Whitney

 

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