In Pennsylvania State Police v. Suders, (2004 WL 1300153) the United States Supreme Court addressed the issues of (1) whether a victim of supervisory sexual harassment who resigned from her job could pursue a claim of hostile work environment sexual harassment, and (2) whether her employer may assert an affirmative defense to such a claim to show that it is not liable for the supervisor’s misconduct.
While Nancy Drew Suders was employed by the Pennsylvania State Police (Employer) she was subjected to a continuous barrage of sexual harassment from three of her supervisors. Suders reported the supervisors’ conduct to Employer’s Equal Employment Opportunity officer, but the officer did not offer her any assistance to file a complaint. Shortly after she reported the harassment, Suders’ supervisors arrested her for theft. The alleged theft occurred when Suders removed exam papers from a drawer in the women’s locker room. Suders removed the exam sheets because it appeared that her supervisors never forwarded the exams for grading, even though they had previously informed her that she failed the exams. Suders tendered her resignation while her supervisors were questioning her about the theft.
Suders filed a lawsuit against Employer in federal district court alleging that she had been subjected to sexual harassment and constructively discharged from her job. The court granted summary judgment in favor of Employer because Suders did not avail herself of Employer’s internal procedures for reporting sexual harassment. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision and found that constructive discharge can be a valid ground for a sexual harassment suit and that Employer could not assert an affirmative defense to liability.
The Supreme Court Decision
The Supreme Court found that an employer can be held liable for a constructive discharge in a sexual harassment lawsuit. Ordinarily, a victim of hostile work environment sexual harassment must show that the offending behavior altered the conditions of employment and created an abusive work environment. However, when a victim alleges a constructive discharge, he or she must also show that working conditions became so intolerable that a reasonable person would have been compelled to resign. Here, the Court found that Suders presented a case of “harassment ratcheted up to the breaking point,” and should be allowed to proceed with her lawsuit.
However, the Court declined to find that an employer is strictly liable in all constructive discharge cases. The Court had previously held, in cases not involving constructive discharge, that an employer is strictly liable for a supervisor’s sexual harassment where the harassment culminates in a tangible employment action such as discharge, demotion, or reassignment to an undesirable position. However, where an employer takes no tangible employment action, the employer is allowed to raise an affirmative defense to the allegations of sexual harassment. To avoid liability, an employer must show that (1) it “exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior,” and (2) the employee failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities or to otherwise avoid harm.
The Court noted that the circumstances leading up to a resignation in a constructive discharge case may or may not involve an official company act by a supervisor. The Court concluded that an employer cannot raise an affirmative defense if an official company act, such as a demotion or reduction in compensation, precipitates the constructive discharge. However, where an official act does not underlie the constructive discharge, the employer may raise the affirmative defense.
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