IHOPe You Brought Your Checkbook!

1200px-IHOP_logo.svg.png

Two IHOP Restaurants to Pay Nearly $1 Million to Settle Sexual Harassment Suit

Teens Among Victims of Misconduct Including Simulated Sex Acts, Sexual Contact, Unwanted Sexual Comments and Physical Threats, Federal Agency Charged

Two southern Illinois International House of Pancakes (IHOP) franchises will pay $975,000 and furnish other relief to settle a systemic sexual harassment lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency announced today.

The EEOC had charged that numerous employees at the locally owned Glen Carbon and Alton, Ill., restaurants were routinely sexually harassed by coworkers and managers, including offensive sexual comments, groping, physical threats, and, in one instance, attempted forced oral sex with a management employee.

The EEOC filed its lawsuit in September 2017 (Equal Employment Opportunity Commis­sion et al. v. 2098 Restaurant Group, LLC et al., Civil Action No. 3:17-cv-1002-DRH) in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, seeking relief for more than 11 female employ­ees at the Glen Carbon IHOP and one male employee at the Alton IHOP. Some of the female employees were teenagers at the time of the alleged harassment.

The consent decree settling the suit, entered today by Judge David R. Herndon, requires the defendants to pay compensatory damages to 16 harassment victims. The decree also requires the com­panies to implement, distribute and enforce tougher policies prohibiting sexual harassment and establish procedures for promptly investigating and addressing sexual harassment complaints. The decree also requires the owner to be directly involved in preventing and correcting sexual harassment. The four-year decree further requires the defendants to provide sexual harassment training to employees, create and maintain documents regarding sexual harassment complaints, and post notices at their facilities. It also enables the EEOC to monitor the restaurants to determine whether harassment recurs, and, if so, that it is dealt with effectively. All the measures are intended to prevent further incidents of harassment.

The EEOC's Youth@Work website (at https://www.eeoc.gov/youth/ ) presents information for teens and other young workers about employment discrimination, including curriculum guides for students and teachers and videos to help young workers learn about their rights and responsibilities.

The Case

Rachel Tudor, a transgender professor whose tenure and promotion was denied at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, was awarded $1.1 million by a federal jury on Monday in a landmark Title VII case.

SEfullcolorLogo.jpg

Tudor was hired by the university in 2004 as a tenure-track assistant professor in the English department and presented as male at the time. She began transitioning in 2007, becoming the university's first openly transgender professor.

According to the lawsuit, after notifying the university that she would be presenting as a woman at work for the 2007-2008 academic year, Tudor received a phone call from an unnamed human resources staffer who told her the school's vice president for academic affairs, Douglas McMillan, had inquired about firing her because her identity as a transgender woman offended his religious beliefs.

The lawsuit also states the director of the university's counseling center, Jane McMillan, Douglas McMillan's sister, told Tudor to take safety precautions, because some people were openly hostile to transgender people. She also reiterated to Tudor that her brother considered transgender people to be a "grave offense to his [religious] sensibilities."

In October 2009, Tudor applied for tenure and a promotion to an associate professor position. Her application was denied, while the application of a similarly qualified male coworker was approved, the lawsuit claims. After Tudor asked for an explanation as to why her application was rejected, according to the suit, Douglas McMillan and another dean refused to provide her with one. Tudor then filed a federal discrimination complaint in 2010.

In March 2015, the Justice Department, then under the Obama administration, sued the university, with former Attorney General Eric Holder declaring that federal prohibitions against sex discrimination include protections based on gender identity.

On Monday, an eight-person jury voted in favor of Tudor on three counts: that she was "denied tenure in 2009-10 because of her gender," that she was denied "the opportunity to apply for tenure in the 2010-11 cycle ... because of her gender" and that the university retaliated against her after she complained about workplace discrimination. The jury then awarded her $1.165 million in damages.

Why Is This Case Important

This case is important because it is one of the first times that a federal court has explicitly found that a plaintiff whose gender identity is transgender is a protected class under federal anti-discrimination laws. In the past, many courts have held that gender identities are not protected in and of themselves. Plaintiffs could only seek protection of federal anti-discrimination laws by arguing they were covered under traditional sexual discrimination statutes because they were mistreated due to application of a sexual stereotype. This argument has worked with varying degrees of success across the country but it is more convoluted and difficult to apply than it should be. 

The issue will certainly have to be decided by the US Supreme Court eventually but this court decision is a good start.

Person of the Year 2017: #MeToo

person-of-year-2017-time-magazine-cover1.jpg

Time Person of the Year 2017: The Silence Breakers
Discussions of sexual harassment in polite company tend to rely on euphemisms: harassment becomes "inappropriate behavior," assault becomes "misconduct," rape becomes "abuse." We're accustomed to hearing those softened words, which downplay the pain of the experience. 

It wasn't so long ago that the boss chasing his secretary around the desk was a comic trope, a staple from vaudeville to prime-time sitcoms. There wasn't even a name for sexual harassment until just over 40 years ago; the term was coined in 1975 by a group of women at Cornell University after an employee there, Carmita Wood, filed for unemployment benefits after she had resigned because a supervisor touched her. The university denied her claim, arguing that she left the job for "personal reasons."

In 1980 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency tasked with enforcing civil rights laws in the workplace, issued guidelines declaring sexual harassment a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It was a victory, but with caveats: even after sexual harassment became explicitly illegal, it remained difficult to lodge a complaint that stuck—in part because acts of harassment are often difficult to define. What separates an illegal act of sexual harassment from a merely annoying interaction between a boss and his subordinate? When does a boss stop just being a jerk and become a criminal? Because the Civil Rights Act offered no solid legal definition, interpretation has evolved slowly, shaped by judges and the EEOC over the past 37 years.

And then...2017 and #MeToo happened. Read Time Magazine's Cover Article Here

#MeToo - Reporting Sexual Harassment In Today's Workplace

Me+Too.jpg

While headlines focus on famous men who lead prominent organizations, the majority of sexual harassment happens in ordinary office buildings by ordinary managers or workers who are insecure about their status in life, feel a need to rattle or dominate others to make themselves feel better, or see their colleague as a potential sexual gratifier. They don't love their victims. In fact, they may want to hurt them through embarrassment, discomfort and humiliation.

Most harassers are men, although women also have been reported. The targets are usually women. However, men filed approximately 17 percent of the sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2016. 

Most employees try to ignore the behavior, at least at first, waiting to see if it will go away. Some clearly ask the harasser to stop. Others try to play along or laugh it off, unwittingly sending mixed signals of encouragement to the harasser.

The correct response, of course, is to report harassing behavior to a supervisor or human resources. A responsible employer will listen to the description of the events and then speak to the instigator. However, reporting sexual harassment is a difficult thing to do. Employees who are being harassed at work often feel alone and powerless. Will the report do any good? Will HR stand up for me? Will I be retaliated against? Will I lose my job?  

 

We have put together an article discussing some important tips to consider when you need to oppose or report sexual harassment in the workplace. If you or someone you know is facing this issue, the information in this article could help.

Weinstein Case Highlights Difficulty Employees Face When Reporting Workplace Harassment Claims

Harvey+Weinstein.jpg

NPR had an excellent story yesterday about the problems that employees face in the workplace when they report sexual harassment:

"Former Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein's ouster from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences following numerous allegations of sexual misconduct have prompted others on social media to open up about workplace harassment complaints that have gone unheeded.
Most employers in most industries have written policies on and procedures for reporting incidents of sexual harassment, and human resources officials are required to investigate those claims.
And while recent decades have seen a cultural shift and more education to help minimize sexual harassment, HR consultant Sharon Sellers says there is still a big gap between what should happen, and what actually does. One concern is that many people don't feel safe reporting claims.
"The employer should take every complaint seriously, and this is one area I see where it falls down," Sellers says."

Most employees don't want a lawsuit; they just want to be allowed to do their job without being sexually harassed. Companies do their employees (and their bottom line) a disservice by not building a strong HR department that has the resources and independence within the company to investigate harassment claims and, when necessary, speak truth to power within the company.

Read the rest of NPR's article here.

Tort Reform Is A Lie: Hot Coffee Still Being Used to Mislead

Here's the lie:

The lies used to support corporate efforts to continue to restrict regular people's access to the courthouse are powerful. And, sadly, they work. Routinely, potential clients who are sitting in my office will reference the famous McDonalds "Hot Coffee" case and try to assure me that their case isn't like the Hot Coffee case.  Their case is real. 

Here's the thing, the story everyone knows about the Hot Coffee case is a myth. It's a lie pushed by big business and their tort "reform" groups to poison the minds of potential jurors and make it harder for those who have been legitimately injured to received fair compensation. 

So, What Happened?:

In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of takeout coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque and spilled it on her lap. She sued McDonald’s and a jury awarded her nearly $3 million in punitive damages for the burns she suffered.

Before you hear all the facts, your initial reaction might be "Isn’t coffee supposed to be hot?" or "McDonald’s didn’t pour the coffee on her, she spilled it on herself!" But that would be before you hear all the facts.

Here are the facts:

Mrs. Liebeck was not driving when her coffee spilled, nor was the car she was in moving. She was the passenger in a car that was stopped in the parking lot of the McDonald’s where she bought the coffee. She had the cup between her knees while removing the lid to add cream and sugar when the cup tipped over and spilled the entire contents on her lap.

The coffee was not just “hot.” It was very dangerously hot. McDonald’s policy was to serve it at an extremely hot temperature that could cause serious burns in seconds. Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries were far from minor. She was wearing sweatpants that absorbed the coffee and kept it against her skin. She suffered third-degree burns (the most serious kind) and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and elsewhere. (See the video above for pictures.)

Importantly Mrs. Liebeck’s case was far from an isolated event. McDonald’s had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee, including reports of third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some cases.

Mrs. Liebeck offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and lost income. But McDonald’s never offered more than $800, so the case went to trial. The jury found Mrs. Liebeck to be partially at fault for her injuries, reducing the compensation for her injuries accordingly.

But the jury’s punitive damages award made headlines — upset by McDonald’s unwillingness to correct a policy despite hundreds of people suffering injuries, they awarded Liebeck the equivalent of two days’ worth of revenue from coffee sales for the restaurant chain. Two days. That wasn’t, however, the end of it. The original punitive damage award was ultimately reduced by more than 80 percent by the judge. And, to avoid what likely would have been years of appeals, Mrs. Liebeck and McDonald’s later reached a confidential settlement for even less than that.

Here is just some of the evidence the jury heard during the trial:  

  • McDonald’s operations manual required the franchisee to hold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Coffee at that temperature, if spilled, causes third-degree burns in three to seven seconds.
  • The chairman of the department of mechanical engineering and biomechanical engineering at the University of Texas testified that this risk of harm is unacceptable, as did a widely recognized expert on burns, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation, the leading scholarly publication in the specialty.
  • McDonald’s admitted it had known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years. The risk had repeatedly been brought to its attention through numerous other claims and suits.
  • An expert witness for the company testified that the number of burns was insignificant compared to the billions of cups of coffee the company served each year.
  • At least one juror later told the Wall Street Journal she thought the company wasn’t taking the injuries seriously. To the corporate restaurant giant those 700 injury cases caused by hot coffee seemed relatively rare compared to the millions of cups of coffee served. But, the juror noted, “there was a person behind every number and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that.”
  • McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that McDonald’s coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into Styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat.
  • McDonald’s admitted at trial that consumers were unaware of the extent of the risk of serious burns from spilled coffee served at McDonald’s then-required temperature.
  • McDonald’s admitted it did not warn customers of the nature and extent of this risk and could offer no explanation as to why it did not.

After the verdict, one of the jurors said over the course of the trial he came to realize the case was about “callous disregard for the safety of the people.” Another juror said “the facts were so overwhelmingly against the company.”

That’s because those jurors were able to hear all the facts — including those presented by McDonald’s — and see the extent of Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries.

But that's not the story that the public has heard. Tort reform advocates lied about the facts of the case and the fake story gained traction. It went viral. So viral that now this story is what is most often cited by jurors and others when explaining why they don't trust lawyers, why they don't like lawsuits, and why they think plaintiffs are just out for a quick buck. 

And it's all a lie.

 

 

If you want to read more, start here.