Sexual Harassment Suit Could Prompt Changes in Michigan Personal Injury Law
By Gerri Elder
The scope of sexual harassment laws in Michigan may be changing and evolving. The Michigan Civil Rights Act (MCRA) currently does not recognize claims of hostile work environment sexual harassment when the harasser and victim are the same sex. However, one currently pending case may lead to changes to the MCRA.
A man who worked at a Ford Motor Company auto manufacturing plant claims that he was sexually harassed by a male co-worker continuously during his employment between 2001 and 2003. He has testified that the other man slapped his buttocks, pinched his nipples, pulled down his pants and made sexually suggestive and crude remarks to him. He has described one incident in which the man actually pulled down his own pants, exposing his testicles, and then pulled the plaintiff's hand over and forced him to touch them.
The plaintiff claims that he reported several of the incidents to a supervisor at the plant, but that the harasser's conduct was simply regarded as workplace horseplay and the complaints were not taken seriously.
He then hired an injury lawyer> and filed a personal injury lawsuit against Ford Motor Company, claiming that he was a victim of sexual harassment as defined by the MCRA. Ford immediately asked that the case be dismissed and argued that horseplay between two men at work did not constitute sexual harassment.
The trial court refused to dismiss the sexual harassment case against Ford, and Ford appealed that decision to the Michigan Court of Appeals.
The Michigan Supreme Court has not yet addressed the issue of same-sex sexual harassment; however the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 1998 case that federal law does allow for same sex sexual harassment claims. In Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, the Supreme Court wrote that although same sex sexual harassment probably was not envisioned when the laws were written, "statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils," and that "discrimination because of sex" in the terms or conditions of employment, should include any sexual harassment that meets the statutory definitions. So, in short, sexual harassment is sexual harassment, regardless of the sex of the harasser or the victim.
The Michigan Court of Appeals decided that the MCRA, which prohibits discrimination because of sex in the terms or conditions of employment, must also encompass situations involving same-sex sexual harassment and hostile work environment claims.
Lawyers for Ford argued that because the harasser was heterosexual, his behavior at work could not be considered to be sexual advances and therefore was not sexual harassment. The Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed and found that the plaintiff's list of incidents, including contact with sexual organs, was enough to consider the worker's conduct to be related to sex.
Ford also claimed that the plaintiff in the case did not prove that the co-worker's actions were "because of sex." The Court of Appeals agreed. Since the trial court had not determined if the co-worker's actions were due to general hostility toward males in the workplace or out of sexual desire, the Court of Appeals sent the case back to the trial court for a determination. Other than a partial "win" on this point, the Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court's ruling that will allow this case to proceed.
In the past, there may have been no such thing as same-sex sexual harassment, but times have changed. The courts recognize this, and therefore the laws themselves, or at least the interpretation of the laws, are changing as well.