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Act fast to stop harassment … and still get sued

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

It is critical to prevent sexual harassment—especially when a supervisor is involved—instead of relying on your post-harassment policy to block lawsuits.

The University of Minnesota just learned that the hard way.

Recent case: Stephanie was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota. Her field of interest was birds of prey, a topic about which her supervisor was an expert. The two went on several research trips to Alaska, where they were alone for weeks in the wilderness. Stephanie claimed that the supervisor made sexual advances, told sexual anecdotes and tried to kiss her while the two were on a mountain perch studying raptors. She said that made her feel vulnerable.

When they returned to the university for the semester, Stephanie found she had to share an office with the supervisor. She complained to the university, explaining what had happened in Alaska. Within a month, she had a new office.

Still, she quit the program and sued, alleging a hostile work environment, sexual harassment and a host of other claims.

In its most recent round of pretrial motions, the university argued it had a harassment policy, told Stephanie about it and urged her to use it. Since it had done everything it was supposed to after Stephanie complained, it asked the court to dismiss her lawsuit.

Not so fast, said the court. It sent the case to a jury to sort out whether Stephanie should have complained earlier and whether the university’s efforts to stop the harassment were sufficient. (Jenkins v. University of Minnesota, No. 13-1548, DC MN, 2015)

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