A federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that the University of Connecticut Health Center can be held responsible for an employee's sexual harassment of a co-worker, affirming a jury verdict against the provider.
Although the hospital had a policy prohibiting sexual harassment and an internal reporting system to investigate claims, a three-judge panel for the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld a jury verdict that it should have known about its employee's misbehavior and taken appropriate actions to prevent it.
"The existence of an anti-harassment policy is not dispositive on the issue of whether the employee exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct harassing behavior," the court said in its opinion.
The ruling, coming amid a wave of sexual harassment claims across the country, should serve as a reminder to hospitals that such claims need to be taken seriously and systematically.
"What I find fascinating is in today's climate employers will likely be held to a higher standard because everybody knows that this kind of thing goes on," said Tim Garrett, a labor and employment attorney at Bass Berry & Sims.
As a result of the ruling, Mindy MacCluskey, who worked as a dental assistant at UConn Health, will receive $125,000 from the health system after she was sexually harassed by Dr. Michael Young in the workplace. She said that Young made comments about her personal life, appearance and invaded her personal space as they worked together in a clinic at a juvenile correction facility starting in 2008.
Although MacCluskey told a supervisor in 2009 or 2010 that there was a situation "under control" with Young, she eventually reported him in 2011 after he blocked a doorway, grabbed MacCluskey and put his hand up her shirt, according to her lawsuit. UConn Health's subsequent investigation found that Young had given two other dental assistants "shoulder rubs" and violated the health center's sexual harassment policy. Young resigned his position in 2011.
Young had been placed on a "last chance" agreement back in 2000 after being disciplined for sexually inappropriate behavior. However, his supervisors after that time were not aware of his prior misconduct.
MacCluskey's attorney Tani Saperstein called the 2nd Circuit's decision "perfect," noting UConn Health should have alerted Young's supervisors of his prior disciplinary action.
"They have to keep an eye on what's going on in the environment," she said. "You can't not pay attention. In their policy, they were supposed to monitor the workplace to keep it free of sexual harassment."
UConn Health and the Connecticut attorney general's office, which represented the health center in the case, declined to comment on the decision. The court noted that UConn Health did not dispute the sexual harassment claims.
Healthcare and labor attorneys say they have seen a growing number of sexual harassment lawsuits and allegations in the industry as the so-called Me Too movement has highlighted sexual misconduct issues. It has also opened up potential liability issues for employers, including hospitals and health systems that may already have robust sexual harassment policies in place. While those policies can help providers ferret out potential misconduct, it's not an absolute defense against litigation.
"The Me Too movement is letting all employers know you better be aware that this could be underneath the problems in the workplace," attorney Garrett of Bass Berry & Sims said.
While employers likely can't monitor their staff at all times and eliminate all workplace harassment, Garrett noted that they likely need to have a "heightened sense of awareness" when an employee has been disciplined in the past, and companies will have a greater responsibility to monitor and investigate any allegations in those situations.
"What's the new scarlet letter? It's H for harasser."