Sexual harassment has been a trending topic in the past few years in the news and the entertainment industry. As victims of sexual harassment have come forward, it has emboldened many others to speak up about their own experiences. But is sexual harassment a crime?
Not technically. You cannot go to jail for sexual harassment. But it’s an incredibly serious issue that can be tried in a civil suit, which can lead to massive damages for the offenders.
Criminal harassment, however, is illegal. But it differs from civil harassment. Each state has its own way of handling unlawful harassment. In most states, harassment rises to the level of a criminal offense if it constitutes a threat to one’s safety or the safety of their family.
What Is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that can be verbal or physical. This form of harassment involves unwanted advancements or inappropriate actions with sexual connotations.
Types of Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment comes in two primary forms:
- Hostile Work Environment – Frequent inappropriate comments and behavior at work can create a hostile work environment, which can affect everyone in an office and not just the victims of the harassment. It is an employer’s responsibility to prevent a hostile work environment from occurring.
- Quid Pro Quo – This form of sexual harassment involves a person in authority suggesting that a coworker exchange sexual acts for special treatment.
Is Sexual Harassment a Form of Sexual Assault?
No, but there are many similarities between the two. With so many recent cases of sexual abuse in the spotlight, they can all tend to blur together into one crime. In addition, what starts off as sexual harassment may eventually lead to sexual assault.
Both sexual harassment and sexual assault involve unwelcome advancements, and both are illegal. But only sexual assault can be tried in a criminal case. Sexual assault differs from sexual harassment when it involves the use of force, intimidation, or threats. For more on the penalties for sexual assault, head here.
Civil Rights Act of 1964
The legal basis for a civil suit in a sexual harassment case is based on the Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits and employer from discriminating based on sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.
Famous Sexual Harassment Cases
There have been many famous sexual harassment cases. Below we’ll cover ten of the most notable cases in chronological order. And If you’re wondering where the Harvey Weinstein writeup is, his conduct rose to the level of sexual assault. Weinstein’s list of accusers could seemingly fill the pages of a lengthy novel, and he was found guilty on two separate counts of sexual assault on February 24, 2020.
Before getting to the list, though, it is worth highlighting the hypocrisy of Matthew Weiner, creator of the TV series Mad Men. The show explores how prevalent sexual harassment was in the workplace in the 1960s.
However, the show’s creator may have been creatively influenced by his own actions. Weiner’s longtime assistant turned star Mad Men writer, Kater Gordon, accused Weiner of verbal sexual harassment. Gordon’s accusation was that Weiner had said to her one night that she “owed it to him to let him see her naked.”
A year after the incident, Gordon was fired from the show. Weiner’s most recent project, the Romanoffs starring Mad Men star Christina Hendricks, coincidentally, was set to be produced by Harvey Weinstein.
Anita Hill vs. Justice Clarence Thomas – 1991
Sexual harassment’s first spotlight case came in 1991. Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American member of the United States Supreme Court, had chosen to retire. In his place, President George Bush appointed Clarence Thomas, an African American conservative from Pinpoint, Georgia.
Many questioned the choice, as Thomas had only served for two years as a federal judge. But his nomination continued to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee came out of the hearings with a split vote, seven in favor and seven against, so the nomination went to the Senate floor.
It was at this time that Anita Hill, a professor of law at the University of Oklahoma, came forward with accusations of sexual harassment by Thomas. Hill had been a former employee of Thomas, and in that time, he had invited her to date him. After Hill declined, Thomas began to harass her by making lewd sexual comments in her company and sending her pornographic movies.
The case pitted one person’s word against the other’s, and the Senate eventually confirmed Thomas’ nomination in a 52-48 vote. While this outcome appeared to be a defeat for the sexual harassment cause, its national coverage led to an increased awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace.
The following year, 1992, was heralded as the “Year of the Woman” as more women than ever before ran for public office and were victorious.
Paula Jones vs. President Bill Clinton
Clinton v. Jones was a landmark case in U.S. Supreme Court history. The case established that an acting president was not immune to a civil case in federal court for actions that were done before taking office.
The case began when Paula Jones, a former Arkansas State employee, brought a sexual harassment civil suit against President Clinton seeking $700,000 in damages. However, President Clinton filed a motion to have the case dismissed, claiming Presidential Immunity. The motion was granted, as Judge Susan Wright stated that an active President was not allowed to be sued until his term was over. The judge, however, did allow for the discovery phase to go on.
Jones appealed the decision in November of 1996 and won. But Clinton filed another motion to delay the trial until he left office. Two years later, in the middle of Clinton’s second term, he settled the suit before it went to court by paying Jones $850,000.
The more significant outcome of the case, though, was that it was the impetus for the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In April of 1998, Judge Wright ordered a summary judgment of the case. Summary judgment is when the court decides a case of one party against another without having a full trial. During the summary judgment, Monica Lewinsky was called to testify. She denied having any sexual relations with Clinton. Clinton also denied the allegations under oath.
However, Lewinsky’s “friend,” Linda Tripp, had taped conversations in which Lewinsky detailed the affair with the President. The tapes were turned over to independent counsel Kenneth Starr, and the content of the tapes was used to impeach the President.
In 1998, the largest sexual abuse settlement at the time was awarded to hundreds of women in the state of Illinois for what was described as rampant sexual abuse throughout Mitsubishi’s Illinois factory.
The lawsuit came in April of 1996, and with it came what seemed to be a never-ending line of women describing a wide range of sexual harassment. The victims described pornographic drawings in the bathrooms, propositions from male employees, being called crude and sexually explicit names, and inappropriate touching—the list went on and on.
Mitsubishi Motors fought the case for two years, claiming that the incidents of sexual harassment remained rare occurrences. But in June of 2018, the company agreed to pay $34 million to settle the case. The company did not legally admit guilt, but the settlement number clearly did that for them. There were over 300 women that shared in the settlement.
Linda Gilbert vs. Daimler Chrysler
A year after President Bill Clinton agreed to an $850,000 settlement, Daimler Chrysler agreed to a deal with employee Linda Gilbert, awarding her a much larger sum of money.
Gilbert said that she had been sexually harassed beginning on her initial day of work in 1992. She was the first female millwright at the company’s Detroit plant, and her first complaint to corporate was in March of 1992. Gilbert said that she had been verbally abused, being called crude names, and was harassed further by frequent photographs and drawings of genitalia in her workplace, in addition to urination on her chair.
Gilbert’s lawyer claimed that the stress from the constant harassment led to substance abuse and alcoholism, but Chrysler tried to prove that Gilbert had these issues before the harassment began.
Eventually, however, Chrysler agreed to a $21 million settlement with Gilbert. At the time, it was the largest sexual harassment settlement for an individual.
Anucha Browne Sanders vs. Madison Square Garden
The former vice president of marketing and business operations for the New York Knicks, Anucha Browne Sanders, sued her former employer for punitive damages stemming from repeated sexual harassment.
What Sanders described was a hostile work environment in which she suffered through continual cursing and unwanted advances. One of the defendants in the case was New York Knicks head coach Isiah Thomas. In his testimony, Thomas, an African American, claimed that, if a white man had called Browne Sanders a “bitch,” it would be much worse than if a black man had done so.
Thomas was a defendant in the case but was not found liable for punitive damages. He was, however, found to have harassed Sanders. Sanders offered to drop her suit to $6 million when she left the team, but the Knicks preferred to go to trial.
In 2007, Anucha Browne Sanders was awarded $11.7 million in punitive damages and compensation.
Ashley Alford vs. Aaron’s Rents
Another example of a hostile workplace form of sexual harassment was on display in the case of Ashley Alford vs. Aaron’s Rents. Alford was employed by the company as a sales representative in 2005. The general manager of the store she worked at, Richard Moore, was the main offender, but Alford’s attorney argued that the male employees at the store carried out a campaign of harassment against Alford.
Richard Moore gave Alford the nickname “Trixie” and repeatedly told her how “cute” she was, made comments about her breast size, and groped her. Further, on more than one occasion, Richard Moore removed his privates in front of Alford.
In response, Alford called the company’s sexual harassment hotline and left a message that was unreturned. Alford then sued Aaron’s Rents in 2008.
After three days of deliberation, the jury sided with Alford and awarded her $15 million in compensatory damages and $80 million in punitive damages.
Carla Ingraham vs. UBS Financial Services
Despite her 22 years of service for the company, UBS retaliated against Carla Ingraham upon hearing her claims. Rather than take Carla Ingraham’s sexual harassment accusations seriously, UBS instead had her fired. And then they had to pay up to the tune of $10.6 million.
Ingraham had accused a vice president at the bank’s Kansas City office, Jay DeGoler, of a continuous pattern of sexual harassment. Ingraham claimed that DeGoler repeatedly made sexual references, directed her to perform sexual favors on a client, and would frequently call her late at night.
UBS claimed that the accusations had no merit. But a court disagreed. In addition to the $10.6 million, Ingraham also received an undisclosed amount for future pay.
Ani Chopourian vs. Catholic Healthcare West
A new record settlement came in the case of Ani Chopourian vs. Catholic Healthcare West. Chopourian was a physician’s assistant who worked in the cardiovascular surgery unit at Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento. From August 2006 to August 2007, Chopourian dealt with unwelcome sexual advances, touching, inappropriate remarks, and disparaging comments about her Armenian heritage.
A jury deliberated for 11 days in 2012 and sided with Chopourian. The damages dished out by the court were $125 million for punitive damages, along with $42.7 million for mental anguish and lost wages. In total, the $167.7 million award is the largest ever for an individual in a sexual harassment case.
Part of Chopourian’s case against her former employer was that the hospital violated section 1278.5 of the California Health and Safety Code. The code reads as follows:
“Legislature finds and declares that it is the public policy of the State of California to encourage patients, nurses, members of the medical staff, and other health care workers to notify government entities of unsafe patient care and conditions.
A health facility shall not discriminate or retaliate, in any manner, against a patient, employee, member of the medical staff, or other health care worker of the health facility…”
The jury found that Catholic Healthcare West not only failed in preventing a hostile work environment, but they had also violated California State law by retaliating against Chopourian after she reported the sexual harassment. Some believe this additional aspect is responsible for the astronomical figure Chopourian was awarded.
Gretchen Carlson vs. Roger Ailes
The subject of the 2019 film Bombshell, the case of Gretchen Carlson vs. Roger Ailes centered around quid pro quo sexual harassment.
Gretchen Carlson, former host of “Fox and Friends,” secretly taped Roger Ailes, former chairman and SEO of Fox, on her phone. During one particular meeting, Aisles makes a comment insinuating quid pro quo. Here’s a portion of the tape.
“I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago, and then you’d be good and better, and I’d be good and better.”
While there is not an explicit statement of exchanging sex for special treatment, the implication is clearly obvious. The recordings made by Carlson were not from a single meeting, but from meetings with Aisles over the course of a year in 2014.
Carlson and Ailes settled the lawsuit out of court for $20 million.
Ford Motor Company
Ford has a long history of not being able to rein in sexual harassment at its plants. Despite having to pay a $22 million settlement in 2000, Ford is facing more potential lawsuits 20 years later.
Ford’s history with sexual harassment began in 1994 when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) began investigating two Ford factories in Chicago. The EEOC returned in 1995 and in 1998, determining that a class of female employees had been subjected to sexual harassment by managers and coworkers.
In 1997, 14 female employees sued Ford in the case of Warnell vs. Ford Motor Company. The women in the suit said that they had been the subject of verbal sexual harassment, and Ford settled three years later for $9 million.
In November 2014, four women, again from the Chicago plant, sued Ford for sexual harassment. In May 2015, an additional 30 women spoke out about their own experiences of sexual harassment and were added to the suit.
The actions described by the women in the lawsuit were consistent with other sexual harassment cases in auto plants. The women said they were told not to complain or to call the sexual harassment hotline.
The latest news on the case came in 2019 when a federal judge declared that the lawsuit could not continue as a class-action case. Judge Robert Dow Jr. claimed that the experiences of the women were too unrelated to be deemed as a single class. The recourse for the plaintiffs now would be to sue Ford as individuals.