Sexual Harassment Cases Often Rejected By Courts

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Many powerful men in Washington, including here at NPR, are facing sexual harassment allegations in the court of public opinion. But in actual court, such cases filed by workers against their employers are often dismissed. The way harassment is defined under the law creates a high bar, and only a small fraction of cases ever make it to trial. NPR's Yuki Noguchi has our report. And a note to listeners - this story contains descriptions that might not be appropriate for younger listeners

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: In surveys, a quarter to half of women say they've experienced workplace sexual harassment. A tiny fraction - estimates range around a tenth - complain to their employers, and far fewer file suit. One reason - the very high rate of case dismissals. University of Cincinnati professor Sandra Sperino has read roughly a thousand sexual harassment cases that were dismissed before they went to trial.

SANDRA SPERINO: You'll see case after case where a woman was groped at work, and the court will dismiss the case as a matter of law, finding that's not sexual harassment.

NOGUCHI: In a 1986 decision, the Supreme Court said the behavior needs to be, quote, "severe or pervasive" in order to qualify as harassment, whether it is sexual or racial. But Sperino says judges' interpretations of what qualifies are out of step with standard office policies. One case, for example, involved a male supervisor harassing a construction worker.

SPERINO: He told the plaintiff, hey, handsome, come here and sit in my lap, talked about raping the worker multiple times, talked about his genitals. And I've actually left off some of the facts, which are worse than what I've just recounted. The court dismissed that case.

NOGUCHI: The judge reasoned the two dozen incidents occurred over a 10-day period - too brief to qualify as pervasive. But in other cases where incidents occurred over longer periods, Sperino says judges often say the infractions were too sporadic to be pervasive. Laura Beth Nielsen is a research professor at the American Bar Foundation and at Northwestern University. She says the Supreme Court further raised the bar in a 2007 decision.

LAURA BETH NIELSEN: What you have to prove is that somebody's acting with intention, so that's a much higher standard.

NOGUCHI: There's no central database tracking employment discrimination cases, and the data are not sorted by type of harassment. Half of cases settle out of court. Nielsen's random sampling of cases showed another 37 percent were dismissed pretrial, including, she says...

NIELSEN: ...Ones where people would go, oh, my God, you get to grope five times, and it's still not sexual harassment?

NOGUCHI: Some judges downgrade an offense if the groping didn't result in direct skin contact or if there's no proof that the victim objected to the sexual advances. These opinions became calcified in law because both state and federal trial court judges would cite them as precedent for subsequent case dismissals. Only two percent of plaintiffs win. Deborah Rhode is director of Stanford's Center on the Legal Profession. She says judges, who are often older and male, lack an understanding of harassment's impact.

DEBORAH RHODE: Oftentimes, it takes a kind of cultural consciousness-raising moment like the one that we're having now to force a re-evaluation of standards.

NOGUCHI: Now she is hopeful.

RHODE: Everything that we've seen on the #MeToo hashtag suggests that there's a lot of pent-up fury out there. And more of these women, I think, are going to seek legal recourse, and attorneys in this social climate are going to think they're more likely to win and get substantial damages.

NOGUCHI: Indeed, Cincinnati employment attorney Randy Freking says his office has seen a large recent uptick in potential clients alleging sexual harassment.

RANDY FREKING: Obviously, the recent news has prompted more phone calls.

NOGUCHI: Freking says he only takes cases that have a decent shot at winning, but warns clients that even very strong cases have a good chance of getting dismissed.

FREKING: Very few people realize that judges just have this power to toss cases out, despite the fact that the Constitution has a right to a trial by jury. And for a woman who's been sexually harassed and been victimized by their employer like that, and then just have that OK'd by some federal judge - it just absolutely rocks your world.

NOGUCHI: Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAMU THE FUDGEMUNK'S "SOLITARY REFINEMENT")

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