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EMPLOYMENT LAW 11/1/06

EEOC settles sexual harassment, reprisal suit against federal contractor for $190,000

A federal contractor providing janitorial services at the Federal Center in Lakewood, Colorado, will pay $190,000 to settle a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit brought by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency announced on October 24, 2006.

Background. The EEOC's lawsuit against Acepex Management Corporation (no 1:05-cv-01883), filed in US District Court for the District of Colorado, arose out of allegations by a female employee that she was severely sexually harassed by her supervisor and subsequently fired in retaliation for reporting the harassment. Although the alleged harasser was removed from the workplace when a complaint reached management, and was later fired, the EEOC asserted that the employer was legally responsible because the harasser was a supervisor. The EEOC contended that the employer's training, policies and procedures were inadequate to inform employees and encourage them to come forward and report any potential harassment. Further, the EEOC alleged, Acepex subsequently fired the victim for what appeared to be retaliation for complaining about the severe sexual harassment.

Settlement terms. As part of the settlement, the employer agreed to pay the female employee $190,000 and enter into a consent decree, which provides that the company will develop procedures which encourage employees to promptly report any perceived discrimination or harassment, and provide annual training to supervisory and non-supervisory employees on sexual harassment and other equal employment opportunity issues. In addition, the company will make its employment policies and handbook available in both Spanish and English.

Written policies are not enough. "The lesson employers should take from this case is that it's not good enough to just have written policies and procedures in place. The employees need to feel safe to complain about sexual harassment without fear of retaliation and the policies and procedures really need to live and breathe and work," said the EEOC's regional attorney Mary Jo O'Neill. Employers need to aggressively train employees and managers about sexual harassment and create a reporting process that encourages employee reporting. Employers must make the process easy for employees to use, and take every complaint seriously. Employers can avoid the kind of liability faced in this case if they take all complaints seriously."

John Evangelisti, another attorney representing the victim, agreed, saying, "This case might have been avoided if the supervisor's early acts of sexual harassment had been reported. But the employees were discouraged by the harassing supervisor from going around him with any complaints. So the supervisor had complete control, and his offensive behavior escalated."

Chester V. Bailey, district director of the EEOC's Phoenix district, which includes Denver, said, "We are pleased that the company has agreed to resolve this case and is taking positive steps to educate the work force about sexual harassment."

For more information on this and other topics, consult CCH Employment Practices Guide or CCH Labor Relations.

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