Have you been following the sexual harassment case out of Las Vegas? In this matter the Supreme Court of the United States decided in April that it takes more than one inappropriate remark to trigger a sexual harassment lawsuit.
In this case, a Las Vegas school official brought suit, claiming she was demoted after filing a complaint against her supervisor for making an inappropriate comment to her. The Justices threw out her claim, indicating that sexual harassment is “a pattern of severe or pervasive abuse, not a mere offense or utterance.” The Justices decided that “simple teasing” (whatever that is) or “off-handed comments” do no necessarily violate the law, even if someone is bothered by them.
The plaintiff in this case, school administrator Shirley Breeden worked in Clark County reviewing job applications. From time to time, her job required her to meet with her male supervisor and her other male co-workers to go over the files on prospective job applicants. Apparently on one occasion, the supervisor told the woman, “I hear making love to you is like making love to the Grand Canyon.” I think I understand the statement, but I’m not sure. One way or the other, Ms. Breeden was not happy, and she complained to one of the company’s higher-ups. That was followed shortly thereafter by the supervisor about whom she had complained, demoting her, and putting her in what was mostly a clerical position without decision-making duties. Ms. Breeden was of the opinion that she was demoted due to the complaint she filed, and I believe the record supports her contention. In 1997 she brought a lawsuit complaining that she was the victim of “an unlawful employment practice.”
The Supreme Court dismissed her case, finding, “No reasonable person could have believed that the single incident recounted above violated Federal anti-discrimination law . . . the comment is at worst an isolated incident that cannot remotely be considered ‘extremely serious’ as is required for sexual harassment.”
I think the U.S. Supreme Court got this one right. Even if the alleged harassing statement was less ambiguous, I don’t have a problem with the requirement that there be a pattern of behavior required to constituted sexual harassment as opposed to one statement or one sentence. If there are women out there reading this column who disagree, I would be very interested in hearing from you, for I fully realize that as a male, I do not find myself in these situations, as you well may. Pending any letters I receive that change my mind, I think that a “one statement equals sexual harassment law” would be too strict a standard, and I believe that the requirement of as the Supreme Court puts it, “pattern of severe or pervasive abuse” is fair.