Court: Forced Reinstatement of Sexual Harasser Violates Public Policy

By Eric B. Meyer

Courts analyzing anti-discrimination statutes such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act mandate that employers educate employees about discrimination in the workplace and provide a way for them to complain.

Then, once made aware of discrimination in the workplace, the employer must take steps that are reasonably designed to end the discrimination. That could mean anything from a verbal warning up to termination of employment. That decision is up to the employer.

In Philadelphia Housing Authority v. AFSCME, after investigating a complaint of sexual harassment, a unionized employer with a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment fired the alleged harasser. The union subsequently filed a grievance that eventually led to arbitration, at which time the arbitrator deemed the alleged harasser’s behavior to be “lewd, lascivious and extraordinarily perverse.”

Notwithstanding, the arbitrator concluded that a verbal warning would have sufficed, rather than termination, and ordered the alleged harasser reinstated and made whole.

State high court blasts arbitrator’s decision

On appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court blasted the arbitrator’s decision, while emphasizing the public policy against unlawful harassment in the workplace.

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The issue before the arbitrator was whether there was just cause for this termination, and if not, what would be the appropriate remedy short of termination. The absurd award here makes a mockery of the dominant public policy against sexual harassment in the workplace, by rendering public employers powerless to take appropriate actions to vindicate a strong public policy. Such an irrational award undermines clear and dominant public policy.”

The state high court then emphasized that employers should have the discretion to determine what step(s) are most reasonably designed to discrimination in the workplace:

A public employer cannot be denied the power to impose consequences for this sort of inappropriate, and facially criminal, conduct. Indeed, with the general notion in mind that recognized rights must generally have some form of remedy, it is clear that there must be a power in public employers to take meaningful steps to vindicate dominant public policy. To allow an arbitration award which finds that an employee engaged in “extraordinarily perverse” physical sexual harassment of a co-worker, yet then simply dismisses the conduct as unworthy of an employer response beyond initial “counseling,” and reinstatement with back pay, would eviscerate the ability of employers to enforce dominant public policy.”

The lesson: Learn from this decision.

Employers should make sure that their anti-harassment policies emphasize zero tolerance. Then, err on the side of harsher discipline. There is no place in the workplace for unlawful discrimination.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

You know that scientist in the action movie who has all the right answers if only the government would just pay attention? Eric B. Meyer, Esq. gets companies HR-compliant before the action sequence. Serving clients nationwide, Eric is a Partner at FisherBroyles, LLP, which is the largest full-service, cloud-based law firm in the world, with approximately 210 attorneys in 21 offices nationwide. Eric is also a volunteer EEOC mediator, a paid private mediator, and publisher of The Employer Handbook (www.TheEmployerHandbook.com), which is pretty much the best employment law blog ever. That, and he's been quoted in the British tabloids. #Bucketlist.

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1 Comment on “Court: Forced Reinstatement of Sexual Harasser Violates Public Policy

  1. Eric — A question on harassment in general.   Didn’t a court rule recently that a company was not liable on an harassment charge because it had offered harassment training, done everything correctly, etc.   It was kind of like “we did our bit so we can’t be blamed if an employee chooses to ignore our policy”.   Am I dreaming this?

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