The increase in social media use, on top of the challenges every law firm has in attempting to retain the best lawyers with all different types of backgrounds, force firms to address issues on sexual harassment. With this increase in risk, a very important tool is to examine, and review policies and practices designed to protect victims of sexual harassment.
How Law Firms Previously Responded to Sexual Harassment Claims
- Weeks v. Baker & McKenzie is one of the most important cases when addressing sexual harassment claims. The female plaintiff pursued a claim based on hostile work environment.
- The administrative and management teams filed multiple complaints without any action being taken.
- The courts ruled that multiple complaints by female employees reflected that the law firm was aware of the partner being accused was likely to create a hostile work environment.
- The failure to report these complaints in the personnel file to warn future employees or supervisors of the misconduct stressed the fact that the firm did not do enough to prevent a hostile work environment.
- The court ruled $50,000 awards in compensatory damages, $3.5 million punitive damage award against the law firm, and $225,000 of punitive damages against the partner.
EEOC Definition of Sexual Harassment
- The EEOC defines sexual harassment as “unwelcomed sexual advances, request for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”
- The determination of whether sexual harassment occurred is done by evaluating the frequency and severity, as well as whether it was physically threatening or humiliating.
- Along with a liability exposure, sexual harassment claims violate professional ethical obligations as well.
- ABA Model Rule lists instances of professional misconduct stating that a lawyer should know what harassment or discrimination is based on sex. Any attorney who commits sexual harassment may also be subject to their license being suspended or revoked.
What Are The Next Steps?
- Each law firm’s policies must include not only the prohibitions of the sexual harassment, however the reporting of, and handling of complaints.
- The EEOC has tremendous guidelines, discussions, and training recommendations to help with law firms in managing the risk exposure in this area.
If you have questions regarding this or any other risk management tools please reach out to:
DJ McKenna, CIC, CLCS
Mitchell & Mitchell Insurance Agency, Inc.