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EEOC Suit: Employers Must Act To Prevent Sexual Harassment

The EEOC announced a sexual harassment lawsuit against a health care clinic. One of the company's receptionists reported that a male patient made numerous unwelcome sexual comments to her and that the clinic did nothing in response. Exercising its anti-discrimination enforcement role, the EEOC now seeks a variety of damages for sexual harassment.

This case is a reminder that the law holds employers accountable for failing to stop sexual harassment, even if the harassment comes from a non-employee.

In this case, sexual harassment came at the hands of a patient. This patient repeatedly made inappropriate sexual remarks to the receptionist during his visits to the clinic. The receptionist reported that the unwelcome sexual comments included an invitation to "run away" him and that the patient was imagining her naked. The man also suggested that they have sex.

Even worse, this behavior continued for a long period of time. The receptionist reported that the patient made sexual comments to her for eight months in 2009 and around four months in 2010. He harassed her during clinic visits and during telephone calls.

The receptionist apparently told her employer about the patient's behavior, putting the company on notice that harassment was occurring in the work environment. Although her employer knew that one of its receptionists was enduring ongoing sexual harassment, it allegedly did nothing to intervene.

One of the EEOC's attorneys summarized its reason for suing the company: "Once an employer is put on notice that any of its employees are being subjected to sexual harassment, it must take prompt corrective action to stop it." Sexual harassment often occurs when an employer allows an uncomfortable atmosphere of unwanted sexual jokes, comments, touching, or requests.

This rule does not necessarily apply only to a company's other employees. Like in this case, an employer can violate anti-harassment laws by tolerating sexual behavior from customers or other third parties.

Source: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "Southwest Virginia Community Health System Sued for Sexual Harassment," Sept. 6, 2012

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