Federal appeals court expands same-sex harassment protections

Posted in Sexual Harassment on October 23, 2013

Just as society is always changing, the law is always evolving to meet society’s needs. Some areas of the law are evolving more quickly than others, and employment law can be counted among the most quickly evolving areas of the law. A recent sexual harassment case decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit demonstrates this evolution in employment law.

By way of background, sexual harassment law changed dramatically in 1998 when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services. In that case, the court found that the federal law that prohibited sexual harassment, known as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, did not just apply to sexual harassment across genders. The court found that Title VII applied to same-sex sexual harassment as well.

In a more recent case decided by the Fifth Circuit, the definition of same-sex sexual harassment evolved still further. The case, known as E.E.O.C. v. Boh Bros. Const. Co., L.L.C., addressed the question of whether same-sex sexual harassment that is not motivated by sexual desire fell under Title VII’s protections.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the construction company on behalf of a male worker who complained that his supervisor harassed him with both verbal and physical abuse. Allegedly, the harassment was motivated by the supervisor’s perception that the worker was unmanly. The EEOC also pursued a retaliation claim against the employer, claiming the company transferred the employee to another location after he complained of harassment. At the new location, the employee’s pay was reduced and he was eventually laid off.

A jury found that the construction company had violated the worker’s rights. The employer appealed that verdict. After a series of decisions, the Fifth Circuit upheld the jury’s findings and found that same-sex sexual harassment of this sort is prohibited by Title VII. 

Source: Human Resources Executive Online, “Same-Sex Harassment Not Always about Sex,” Larry Keller, Oct. 21, 2013