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“The Times They Are A-Changing”: Can the Employer Affirmative Defense Survive in the #MeToo Era?

Blank Rome Workplace

Employers grappling with the reverberations of the #MeToo movement have been able to take some solace that, with the right policies and complaint process, they can insulate themselves against liability in sexual harassment cases where the employee does not make a complaint under the internal procedure. That insulation is possible given a well-established and objectively provable legal framework.

What we know…

Where the alleged harassment is by a coworker, if the employee/victim does not complain, there is no liability because the failure to lodge a complaint and allow the employer to investigate objectively avoids any inference of negligence. Essentially, where the employer would not otherwise know of the harassment involving coworkers, it cannot be responsible.

On the other hand, if the harassment is by a supervisor, there is no resulting tangible job action (such as demotion or termination), and the employee does not complain, the employer can assert the affirmative defense established by the Faragher-Ellerth cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Successful assertion of that defense involves the employer showing that it exercised “reasonable care” to prevent workplace harassment and discrimination and that the employee “unreasonably failed” to take advantage of the preventative or corrective opportunities that were in place.

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