While it’s never a good idea for someone with supervisory authority to engage in a sexual relationship with a subordinate, such an affair doesn’t always trigger employer liability. If the relationship is consensual and there’s no indication higher-ups knew about the affair, there’s no liability under Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.
Recent case: Jennifer Diepenhorst, a forensic evidence technician with the Battle Creek Police Department, had a secret affair with a police sergeant. The two carried on their relationship for several years, always away from work. After the sergeant ended the relationship, Diepenhorst became upset. When she later learned she wasn’t getting a promotion she wanted, she quit and went public, claiming the relationship had been coerced.
The sergeant was suspended pending an investigation, which concluded that the relationship had been consensual. Diepenhorst then sued, alleging that she had not been promoted because of the relationship and that the city was liable.
Not so, concluded the court when it tossed out the case. Because the city didn’t know about the relationship until after it was over, and because it investigated Diepenhorst’s complaints promptly, it wasn’t responsible. (Diepenhorst v. City of Battle Creek, No. 1:05-CV-734, WD MI, 2007)
Final note: Employers must be prepared to act quickly on sexual harassment complaints. A prompt investigation can often save the day.
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