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EEOC class action requires proof each member was harassed

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Here’s a bit of good news for employers facing an EEOC sexual harassment investigation: A federal court has concluded that, in a pattern-and-practice lawsuit, the EEOC still must show that each and every woman it claims was subjected to a hostile work environment actually experienced the harassment.

The EEOC had argued that all it had to show was that the company allowed a hostile work environment to exist: It knew about it, yet did nothing. The agency argued it then could demand damages for every woman who signed on with the lawsuit, regardless of whether each was personally affected by the hostile environment. That potentially could have meant millions of dollars in damages for women who may never have been harmed by the supposed pervasive sexual harassment.

Recent case: The EEOC filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against International Profit Associates (IPA), alleging its investigation showed the workplace was a hotbed of sexual harassment, and that the company knew about it and chose to do nothing. More than 100 women signed up for the lawsuit.

The court said the case will be handled in two phases when it comes to trial.

In Phase I, the EEOC will have to prove that the sexual harassment, taken as a whole, was so pervasive or so severe that a reasonable woman would find the work environment hostile and abusive. It must show IPA knew or should have known that regular or systematic sexual harassment was occurring in its offices, but did not take steps to stop it.

In Phase II, the EEOC must prove that each of the 100-plus women experienced the harassment, as well as document their actual damages. (EEOC v. International Profit Associates, No. 01-C-4427, ND IL, 2007)

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