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Sexual Harassment: The Problem Has Not Gone Away

posted Apr 27, 2012, 1:46 AM by Resty Manapat

Unlike other types of discrimination and harassment, the number of claims for sexual harassment has been going down. In fact, in 2010 fewer sexual harassment charges were filed than at any time since 1992, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began tracking those claims. So that’s the good news.

The bad news is that sexual harassment still pervades many workplaces. Just last month, a federal appeals court in Boston affirmed a $1.6 million jury verdict in favor of a female neurosurgeon who was subjected to sexual harassment by the department head and retaliation by the hospital after she complained.

Dr. Sagun Tuli alleged a pattern of harassment over a five-year period, including:

  • At a graduation dinner, the department head asked Dr. Tuli: “Can you get up on the table to dance so you could show them [female residents] how to behave?”
  • Over the years, he made repeated comments: “You’re just a little girl, you know, can you do that spine surgery?” “Oh, girls can do spine surgery?” “Are you not strong enough to use the hand instruments?”
  • The department head ignored Dr. Tuli at conferences by stating, “Let’s ask the spine guys, Eric and Marc, what they think,” and omitting her despite the fact that she is also a spine surgeon.
  • At a meeting, the department chair told her, “Our relationship is like that of lovers and you’ve cheated on me,” with his hand on her arm; he also called her “deranged.” When she attempted to shake his hand at the end of the meeting, he gave her a prolonged hug.
  • The department chair barred Dr. Tuli from spine oncology research saying that he had “a guy in mind” for the job.

When Dr. Tuli brought her concerns to the attention of the hospital’s chief medical officer, he discouraged her from filing a formal complaint. Then the department head made a report to the hospital’s credentials committee, suggesting that Dr. Tuli was mentally imbalanced. The credentials committee ordered her to go for a psychiatric evaluation, so Dr. Tuli filed a lawsuit and got an injunction to prevent loss of her hospital privileges during the litigation.

After a seven-week trial, a jury awarded Dr. Tuli $1 million for hostile work environment sexual harassment, and $600,000 for retaliation, payable by the hospital. She was awarded an additional $20,000 in damages against the department head personally, as well as $1.3 million in attorneys’ fees. In affirming the trial court, the appeals court said that Dr. Tuli was free to seek an additional attorneys’ fee award for her successful defense of the injunction and the jury verdict. Tuli v. Brigham & Women’s Hospital, (1st Cir., Aug. 29, 2011)

What this means: As shown in this case, and in all of this month’s Big Money items, unlawful harassment can occur in any work environment, blue-collar, white-collar, or white-coat. In this uncertain economic climate, employers are reducing or eliminating expenses that don’t seem essential to everyday business operations. But cutting back employment law training as part of that effort is a big mistake!

Courts routinely consider an employer’s training and educational practices as key evidence, so companies should train managers and supervisors in a number of employment law and HR-related issues, including harassment and retaliation. The strategically-minded employer recognizes that training the people who are responsible for its operation is not a luxury, but a primary responsibility.

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