Employer Liability in a Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

Woman molesting her male colleague in office, closeup. Sexual harassment at work

When an employee goes to work, they are entitled to a harassment-free environment. State and federal laws protect employees from sexual harassment in the workplace, and Massachusetts has established itself as a national leader in holding employers liable in sexual harassment lawsuits. At the Maura Greene Law Group, our team of experienced employment law attorneys zealously advocate on behalf of employees who are sexually harassed in the workplace. We help victims hold employers accountable for their actions.

Federal Title VII Protections

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects workers from sexual harassment as a form of intentional sex discrimination by their employers. The Supreme Court held that both quid pro quo and hostile work environment behavior are considered harassment and actionable by employees. Over the years, federal case law has established the following as standards for employer liability in Title VII sexual harassment claims:

  • Direct, strict liability: When harassment is so pervasive at high levels that it equates to a policy of harassment, and harassment by an alter-ego of the employer
  • Vicarious liability with no defense: Harassment by a supervisor leads to a tangible employment action
  • Vicarious liability with an affirmative defense: Harassment by a supervisor does not lead to a tangible employment action
  • Negligence liability: Harassment by a co-worker or third party

Massachusetts Law Prohibits Sexual Harassment at Work

Massachusetts has its own anti-discrimination law, Section 151B, that takes the protections of Title VII one step further for workers who are sexually harassed at work. One of the biggest differences in employer liability under Massachusetts state law is that the statute does not allow an affirmative defense for harassment by a supervisor. If an employee can show that a supervisor committed sexual harassment, then the employer can be held vicariously liable with no affirmative defense in a sexual harassment lawsuit.

This change places an onus on employers to hire qualified and appropriate people for positions of authority and to hold those employees responsible when they commit acts of sexual harassment of their subordinates. Massachusetts law also considers a supervisor failing to protect a subordinate employee from harassment to be harassment, which also goes further to protect employees than the federal Title VII law.

Finally, Massachusetts case law expanded the definition of ‘supervisor’ for sexual harassment claims as broader than the definition under Title VII federal law. In Romero v. McCormick & Schmick Restaurant Group, the Massachusetts state court held that a supervisor does not need to have the power to fire, hire, promote, demote, discipline, or transfer an employee. Instead, a person can be identified as a supervisor if they have a “modicum of authority” over other employees, including the ability to assign work, impose scrutiny, or have a responsibility to protect other workers from sexual harassment. This ruling is in line with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which had also issued a broad definition of the term ‘supervisor.’

Need Help With a Sexual Harassment Lawsuit?

If you have faced sexual harassment in the workplace, call or contact the Maura Greene Law Group today to schedule a consultation with an expert in Massachusetts employment law.

The Not So Fine Print:

We see patterns in our practice, like the ones described above.  However, every case has its own unique facts.  Before you take any action, you should contact an employment lawyer and get advice on your own situation.  We can’t provide legal advice here and this isn’t intended as legal advice.   Keep in mind that it is best, if possible, to establish a relationship with an attorney before a workplace issue turns into a full-blown crisis.  Employees who have received a verbal or written warning or performance improvement plan, should contact counsel now.  Ditto for employees who are seeing their doctor for workplace related stress or anxiety.