If you have a claim for workplace sexual harassment, what is initially reported to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), and how it’s reported, may affect your legal claim in court.

Before filing a lawsuit based on workplace sexual harassment against an employer under Title VII, a victim is required to file a charge with the EEOC. The EEOC then issues a “right to sue” notice, which allows the victim to file his/her claim in court.

In the recent case of Little v. CRSA, released by the Eleventh Circuit on August 15, 2018, the Court held that Sybil Little’s sexual harassment claim was limited by the scope of her EEOC charge, and affirmed the district court’s dismissal of her complaint.

Since 2006, Sybil Little had been employed as a technician and safety coordinator at CRSA in Fort Rucker, Alabama. She alleged in her federal court action that she was the victim of continuing sexual harassment by Jason Patrick, CRSA’s Operations Manager, and Ricky Norris, CRSA’s Lead Technician. She alleged that Patrick propositioned her for sex and that Norris commented on her body and appearance and encouraged her to wear dresses and heels so that he could watch her climb a ladder.

Sybil Little’s mistake was to only include in her EEOC charge the alleged discrimination carried out by Norris, but not by Patrick and, more importantly, she failed to include any allegations about her employer, CRSA.

The Eleventh Circuit opinion pointed out that

EEOC complaints are not strictly interpreted, and judicial claims are allowed if they amplify, clarify, or more clearly focus the allegations in the EEOC charge. But, Little’s allegations could not clarify what was not in her EEOC charge.”

Under Title VII, a claim cannot be maintained against individuals like Norris and Patrick, only against employers like CRSA. Based on the only alleged misconduct by Norris, CRSA would be held liable if Norris was alleged to be a supervisor with immediate or successively higher authority over Little, which then would make CRSA vicariously liable. CRSA could be also held directly liable if it knew or should have known of the harassing conduct but failed to take prompt remedial action. Little, however, plead no facts that Norris was anything other than a co-employee, and Little did not set forth any allegations that she told management about Norris’s misconduct. Her mere allegations that Norris made offensive comments were not enough to show that CRSA management should have known of the harassment.

If you have been the victim of workplace sexual harassment, you should discuss your story with an attorney who can guide you in all the steps necessary to properly assert your legal claim, from filing a EEOC charge through handling litigation in court.

It occurs to me that a more positive, not-everything-is-bad post is in order. My past posts have addressed the employee-employer imbalance of power, advocated an end to mandatory arbitration, and criticized the Senate version of the proposed, revised Congressional Accountability Act. However, progress has nonetheless been made these past months (at least I think so) and so it makes sense we take stock.

Jodi Kantor, of the (failing) New York Times [yes, that is a joke: relax!] attempted to do just that, take stock, back in March. Her article highlights a variety of actions taken by companies, cities, states and the federal government in response to the #metoo movement and society’s possible awakening. While Ms. Kantor’s assessment was certainly not all positive – much (most) work remains, much of it at a societal level – she nonetheless pointed to some bright spots. One success was Microsoft’s announcement, late last year, to get rid of forced arbitration in its employment agreements. Another was the Screen Actor’s Guild (“SAG”) publishing an updated Code of Conduct. Even if you are not a waiter/actor in LA, this is an interesting read, especially for newbies. SAG’s Code defines some basic terms (e.g., quid pro quo, hostile work environment, retaliation) and educates actors and employers on what to expect when a complaint is filed, as well as provides resources to employees.

But I am singling out Facebook for further analysis and some praise (God knows, it needs it). In December 2017, Facebook took the somewhat unusual step and put its internal policy online for all to see. In the announcement post COO Sheryl Sandberg declared Facebook’s “philosophy” was to go beyond what was legally required – not too hard, unfortunately- and to enforce a zero-tolerance approach. Undergirding the policy are the following six principles: 1) mandatory sexual harassment and unconscious bias training; 2) treating all claims with “seriousness, urgency, and respect”; 3) investigating claims in a way that protects employees from stigma or retaliations; 4) applying the process consistently; 5) taking “swift and decisive action” when wrongdoing is identified; and 6) involving all employees in making the workplace safe by encouraging people to report unacceptable behaviors, even if it does not involve them.

The Facebook policy is a real treasure-trove for commentary and analysis and over the next few posts, I aim to highlight some of the encouraging parts, compare it against the company’s stated philosophy and principles, and give you my two-cents on what (if anything) might be problematic or objectionable.

If you have time, read over the Facebook policy and stay tuned.

You may have a situation where not only you have been the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, but your coworkers may also have had other negative experiences with the same employer. Can all of you jointly sue the employer for workplace sexual harassment in what is called a class action or collective action?

It depends. If you and your coworkers each have an employment contract with the offending employer, the fine print may contain an arbitration clause that prohibits bringing a class action against your employer. What does having an arbitration clause mean? It means that any dispute you have with your employer must be resolved one-on-one in a private setting by a neutral arbitrator or panel of arbitrators. The arbitrator(s) may be selected by your employer or jointly by you and the employer from a list of arbitrators. You may have given up the right to file a complaint in state or federal court, where a jury of your peers decides the merits of your claims. Theoretically, it is more favorable to have your claims resolved by a jury than an arbitrator or arbitrators selected by your employer.

The Epic Systems Corporation v. Lewis Decision

The Supreme Court of the United States in Epic Systems Corporation v. Lewis, recently considered whether employment contracts that require one-on-one arbitration for resolving disputes are enforceable if their effect is to prevent several employees from jointly suing their employer. The opinion began with the following questions:

Should employees and employers be allowed to agree that any disputes between them will be resolved through one-on-one arbitration? Or should employees always be permitted to bring their claims in class or collective        ac­tions, no matter what they agreed with their employers?

The employees involved in the Epic Systems case argued that the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), which secures employees’ right to organize unions and bargain collectively, gave them the right to collective action. The employers argued that the Federal Arbitration Act permitted a bar to collective legal action. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 opinion penned by Justice Neil Gorsuch, held that the NLRA does not give employees a right to class actions. Rather, the Federal Arbitration Act provides that arbitration agreements must be enforced according to their terms—including terms providing for individualized arbitration.

Fatima Goss Graves, President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, released the following statement on the day the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Epic Systems:

Fatima Goss Graves, National Women Law Center’s President and CEO

“Today, the Supreme Court has taken away a powerful tool for women to fight discrimination at work. Instead of banding together with coworkers to push back against sexual harassment, pay discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, racial discrimination, wage theft, and more, employees may now be forced behind closed doors into an individual, costly – and often secret– arbitration process. This will stack the deck in favor of the employer. For all working people, the right to join a class or collective action is an indispensable tool to advance fairness, justice, and equality at work. For women workers, however, the stakes are particularly high. Women often face discrimination that is difficult to detect, like pay discrimination, or suffer from sexual harassment and face retaliation for reporting it. As mandatory arbitration is forced on growing numbers of employees as a condition of employment, the Supreme Court should strengthen rather than undermine the rights of workers to challenge insidious and often widespread civil rights violations.”

In Florida, if you are a non-union employee, have an employment contract, or mandatory arbitration is a condition of your employment, then your ability to sue your employer along with your coworkers for workplace sexual harassment is limited by the Epic Systems decision. Not all arbitration clauses are written the same and some companies are e-mailing their arbitration agreement to employees and telling them that if they continue to be employed there, they are deemed to have accepted the terms. If you and your coworkers are experiencing sexual harassment, you should seek legal counsel to determine whether you are restricted from raising a workplace sexual harassment claim as a class action. We are here to help you figure out the available legal avenues if you find yourself in this situation.

De todas las ventajas que los empleadores tienen sobre las víctimas de acoso sexual laboral, quizás ninguna de ellas se iguala al poder que tienen los empleadores a obligar a los empleados que son víctimas de acoso sexual, a someterse al arbitraje y renuciar al derecho que tienen de presentar una demanda, ya sea en una corte estatal o federal.

Nota: por si usted no sabe, el arbitraje es un tipo de corte privada donde uno o mas árbitros hacen las veces de quasi jueces. Muchas veces, los contratos de empleo incluyen claúsulas en las que se le require al empleado someterse al arbitraje en casos de disputas laborales – incluyendo casos de acoso sexual.  Dependiendo de a qué parte le preguntemos, obtendremos diferentes reacciones sobre si el arbitraje es algo bueno.  Según la Asociación Americana de Arbitraje, el arbitraje es “más rápido y más rentable que litigar.” No es de sorprenderse que por lo general los empleadores estén de acuerdo con esta evaluación; es más, después de varias cervezas hasta podrían admitir que el arbitraje en sí favorece ampliamente a los empleadores. Pero, aunque aceptemos la premisa “rapidez-rentabilidad” (por salvar ese argumento), las víctimas de acoso sexual que buscan ser compensadas quizás no se beneficien tanto de esta rapidez y eficiencia.

El abogado general de cada estado de los Estados Unidos de Norte América parece pensar de esta manera. En una carta de fecha 12 de Febrero del 2018 dirigida al Congreso – la cual fue difundida por nuestro propio abogado general, Pam Bondi – los abogados de todos los estados concluyeron unánimemente que “[a]unque hay muchos beneficios con las claúsulas de arbitraje en otros contextos, las mismas no se extienden a los casos de acoso sexual.” Por qué? Porque los árbitros

no están colocados para asegurarse que a estas víctimas se les otorgue su derecho al debido proceso legal.”  

Estas declaraciones son bastante fuertes viniendo de representantes de los estados altamente Republicanos (también conocidos como “amigos” de los empleadores), así como de los estados altamente Demócratas.  La carta también resalta el efecto dañino que el secretismo – muchos de los árbitros son secretos ‒ puede tener en la sociedad, pues el alcance del problema básicamente se barre debajo de una alfombra proverbial.

Entonces, veremos algún cambio? Francamente no temenos idea . . . la Ley del Arbitraje Justo del 2018 fue presentada al Congreso en Marzo del 2018. La propuesta de ley pretende prohibir el arbitraje en casos relacionados con disputas de empleo, consumo, antimonopolio, y derechos civiles. Pero, como dirían los observadores de la factoría de leyes que el Congreso contempla: el camino entre una propuesta de ley y la ley en sí es bastante largo.  El movimiento #metoo ha sido claramente el ímpetu para esta propuesta de ley.  Sólo tendremos que ver si el deseo se sigue manteniendo aún después de que el tema del acoso sexual se haya desvanecido de los encabezados noticiosos.

Of the many advantages employers have over victims of sexual harassment, perhaps none matches the power to compel victims to arbitrate, for them to forgo the opportunity of a lawsuit in state or federal court.

Sidebar: if you don’t know, arbitration is a kind of private court, where one (or more) arbitrators act as quasi judges. Often, employment contracts will have language in them requiring the employees to arbitrate work-related disputes, including allegations of sexual harassment. Depending upon which side you ask, you will get very different reactions to whether arbitration is a good thing. According to the American Arbitration Association, arbitration is “faster and more cost effective than litigation.” Unsurprisingly, employers generally agree with this assessment; after a few beers they might even admit arbitration, on balance, strongly favors employers. But, even if we accept the speed-cost premise (for argument’s sake), sexual harassment victims seeking redress may not benefit from speed and efficiency.

The attorneys general of every single U.S. State seem to think so anyway. In a February 12, 2018 letter to Congress – spearheaded by our very own Attorney General Pam Bondi – the attorneys general unanimously concluded that

[w]hile there may be benefits to arbitration provisions in other contexts, they do not extend to sexual harassment claims.”

Why? Because arbitrators “are not positioned to ensure that such victims are accorded both procedural and substantive due process.” Now, that is quite a statement coming jointly from representatives of deep-red (aka employer-friendly), as well as blue states. The letter also highlights the deleterious effect that secrecy – many arbitrations are secret – can have on society at-large because the scope of the problem is swept under the proverbial rug.

So, will we see some change? I frankly have no idea . . . the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2018 was introduced in Congress last month. The bill purports to prohibit arbitration in employment, consumer, antitrust and civil rights disputes. But, as even casual observers of the congressional sausage factory will tell you: it is a long way from bill to law. The #metoo movement was clearly the impetus for the bill. We will just have to see if the will remains when the topic of sexual harassment has faded from the headlines.