Recent allegations about conduct by celebrities and high-profile executives such as Harvey Weinstein remind employers that quid pro quo sexual harassment still persists in many industries. Unlike general hostile environment claims, quid pro quo harassment involves exercise of supervisory authority to threaten an employee or promise rewards in return for sexual favors. Legally, quid pro quo harassment claims are especially dangerous for employers because in most cases, the company has little legal defense against the allegations. Recently, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that quid pro quo legal principles apply even when the supervisor allegedly promised rewards for sexual favors provided to a third party.
In Davenport v. Edward D. Jones & Co., the plaintiff worked at a financial planning office. She alleged that her supervisor conditioned payment of a bonus on her agreeing to date an important client. The district court dismissed her quid pro quo harassment claim on the basis that the requested sexual favors were for a third party and not the supervisor himself. The Fifth Circuit rejected this reasoning, noting that the alleged harasser would have personally benefited from the request for sexual favors, even if they would have been provided to a third party.
The court ultimately affirmed summary judgment for the employer because it concluded that the plaintiff could not demonstrate that the bonus was actually tied to the date request. Regardless of the factual conclusion in this situation, this case reminds employers that their sexual harassment training and policies should include strict prohibitions against quid pro quo harassment. While the frequency of these claims may have decreased in recent years, they still present significant legal risks for employers with supervisors who engage in this conduct.