WASHINGTON (AP) — Police dispatcher Nancy Drew Suders says
she had no choice but to quit her job after enduring months of
verbal abuse and harassment from male co-workers.
She wasn’t thinking about the finer points of employment
law when she walked out, although she quickly learned that getting
fired would have made her sexual harassment lawsuit much easier to
Suders’s case came to the Supreme Court yesterday as an
example of the problems that on-the-job harassment can cause for
employees, employers and a legal system struggling to draw rules
fair to all sides.
Day in and day out, Suders says, her male co-workers at a
Pennsylvania State Police barracks taunted her with lewd talk.
Suders says one officer repeatedly grabbed his crotch in front of
her and others told dirty jokes.
“She was subjected to horrendous conditions at
work,” and got nowhere when she sought help within the police
agency, her lawyer, Donald Bailey, told the court.
Suders’s supervisors deny any harassment. They claim she
was disorganized, often late and overwhelmed by her duties. They
note she never told anyone about the alleged abuse until just
before she quit, and that she left the job in 1998 after being
accused of stealing results of a computer test that her supervisors
told her she had failed. She was not charged.
The Supreme Court has said employers can be on the hook for
lawsuits over sexual harassment that results in some clear
punishment for the employee, such as getting fired or demoted. The
court also has said that an employer can avoid such suits by
showing a sincere and effective policy aimed at preventing and
responding to harassment.
Suders wants the justices to conclude that in cases like hers,
quitting is really the same thing as getting fired. She
shouldn’t be penalized because she didn’t wait around
for further abuse or punishment, her supporters argue.
“Sexual harassment is all too pervasive in the workplace
and can amount to a situation where an employee feels she has no
effective choice but to resign to escape it,” said Jocelyn
Samuels, who helped write a friend of the court brief supporting
Suders for the National Women’s Law Center.
“That’s very much a real-world problem, and one that
employers ought to be liable for.”
Although perhaps sympathetic to Suders herself, several justices
seemed unwilling to go that far. There is a real-world
consideration for employers, too, they noted.
The state of Pennsylvania, the Bush administration and business
groups want the high court to overturn a lower court’s ruling
in Suders’s favor.
If Suders wins, “employers could have reason to be nervous
every time someone quits,” said lawyer Ellen Dunham Bryant of
the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“We want employers to be encouraged to have
(anti-harassment) policies, and we want employees to be encouraged
to report harassment,” Bryant said. “We feel everyone
benefits in that situation.”
Suders was aware of the state’s anti-harassment policies
and procedures to complain but sought no help until two days before
she quit, lawyers for the state argued. Although Suders’s
allegations are presumed to be true for the purposes of this case,
the lawyers noted that Suders’s former supervisors and
co-workers deny them.
Nearly half of all working women have experienced some form of
harassment on the job, and harassment affects women in all kinds of
jobs and at all levels of employment, according to the National
Women’s Law Center.