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Washington Supreme Court Cracks Down on Sexual Harassment

Hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear of some prominent celebrity or public figure being brought down by accusations of sexual harassment. In the #MeToo era, it can be easy to forget that just a few short years ago there was considerably less attention to the issue — a marker of how quickly social norms can change. Today, even the courts are starting to catch up with evolving public sentiment. And one of the biggest legal developments just unfolded here in our state, where the Washington Supreme Court announced a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment in places of public accommodation.

The new ruling, Floeting v. Group Health, Inc., arose from the case of a hospital employee who harassed a patient — on a repeated basis –while he was under the hospital’s care. The case falls under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), which holds employers in places of public accommodation directly liable when their employees harass customers or members of the public.

As the Court ruling explained, “Employers are directly liable for the sexual harassment of members of the public by their employees, just as they would be if their employees turned away customers because of their race, religion, or sexual orientation.”

This imposes a different — and much more strict — standard for places of public accommodation in comparison to standard workplaces where sexual harassment may occur.  But legal experts are already speculating that the effects will likely drift over to private businesses and indeed all workplaces, not just places of public accommodation.  Molly Powell, an administrative judge for the U.S. Equal Employment Commission, wrote about the case’s implications here.

As Powell explains, the Court ruling stated that strict liability for any sexual harassment carried out by employees will motivate proprietors of places of public accommodation to take proactive and preventative steps against sexual harassment. These behaviors could be prevented through training, workshops, better supervision, and other measures. On the other hand, the single dissenting judge in Floeting v. Group Health voiced her concern that the strict liability laws would lead to “management by lawsuit.”

But there’s one thing everyone agrees upon: the zero-tolerance position toward sexual harassment will surely lead proprietors to re-examine their policies and efforts to stamp out harassment and discrimination through beefed up policies, quality training, and supervision.

“Going forward, we’ll likely see more protection for individuals who experience sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination in the workplace or in public places. That’s progress,” said Tim Emery, a partner with Emery Reddy law firm. Yet at the same time, Emery also acknowledged that these unlawful behaviors remain widespread in U.S. workplaces, and much more needs to be done to protect workers. His team has represented thousands of workers throughout Washington state who’ve experienced harassment, as well as wrongful termination, workplace discrimination, unlawful pay and leave practices, workplace injuries, and denied L&I claims.

If you need help with any employment, injury, or workers compensation dispute, contact the Emery Reddy team today.

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