For years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) divided sexual harassment claims into two distinct categories. Hostile environment harassment related to creation of an offensive work environment based on sexual remarks, touching, propositions, etc. Quid pro quo harassment claims on the other hand, required a threat or promised reward by a supervisor in return for the subordinate employee agreeing to engage in sexual activity. Supreme Court decisions in 1998 largely erased this distinction when it came to determining employer liability for sexual harassment engaged in by supervisors. Earlier this month, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to apply this distinction in determining whether a plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies before filing suit.
In Jones v. Needham, the plaintiff was a male mechanic who alleged that his female supervisor fired him after he refused her sexual advances. The district court dismissed the complaint on the grounds that the plaintiff’s EEOC charge only alleged sexual harassment on the basis of alleged sexual remarks made by the supervisor. The court said that this charge did not place the employer on reasonable notice of the quid pro quo harassment claims.
The Tenth Circuit disagreed, and reversed the lower court determination in a 2-1 decision. The appellate court noted the 1998 Supreme Court decisions, and concluded that the two types of sexual harassment claims are related. By alleging sexual harassment in general in the EEOC charge, the plaintiff fulfilled his obligation to place the employer on notice of either type of claim. Even though liability at trial may be premised on different evidence, at the EEOC charge stage this distinction is not as relevant. Employees subjected to quid pro quo harassment by definition experience a hostile work environment.
Quid pro quo sexual harassment claims were never common in comparison to hostile environment allegations, and were in decline even before the 1998 Supreme Court decisions based on employer policies and training, and a general awareness of the illegality of this type of behavior in the workplace. While the legal distinction between the two sexual harassment theories has largely disappeared, employers with supervisors found to have engaged in coercion for sexual favors can expect a very unpleasant legal experience.