Last November, we explained the decision in the case of U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Scott Medical Health Center, P.C., from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. There, the court concluded that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation. Our previous post on this case can be found here.
To recap, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) filed the lawsuit on behalf of a gay, male former employee of Scott Medical, alleging that his supervisor subjected him to anti-gay epithets and a hostile work environment based on his sexual orientation. The court refused to dismiss the case because, in the words of U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon, “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a subset of sexual stereotyping and thus covered by Title VII’s prohibitions on discrimination ‘because of sex’.”
On September 25, 2017, the court entered a default judgment against Scott Medical on the issue of liability. The court found that the company had committed an intentional violation of Title VII. This finding was based on the fact that Scott Medical’s Chief Executive Officer was aware of the supervisor’s harassing actions and refused to take any action to stop the conduct or correct the hostile work environment.
On November 16, 2017, after a trial on issue of damages, Judge Bissoon ordered Scott Medical to pay the employee $5,500.43 in back pay and prejudgment interest. More importantly, she also ordered Scott Medical to pay the statutory maximum amount of $50,000 as compensatory and punitive damages. If not for the statutory cap on such damages, Judge Bissoon opined that “punitive damages in the amount of $75,000 would be warranted by the evidence” in this case.
Notably, the supporting evidence cited by the court included the fact that Scott Medical failed to train the harassing supervisor on its anti-harassment policy. In fact, Scott Medical could not identify anyone who would have provided such training to any of its supervisors. Similarly, the former employee testified that he never received a copy of the Company’s anti-harassment policy and was never trained about harassment in the workplace.
There are several clear takeaways from this case. First, as we explained here, regular and effective anti-harassment training is an essential part of preventing harassment in any organization. This case provides 55,000 reasons to ensure that such training is provided to supervisors and managers, as well as all other employees.
The second takeaway is to revisit your organization’s Equal Employment Opportunity and Anti-Harassment policies, and consider adding sexual orientation as a protected trait. As you update your policies, keep in mind the importance of responding promptly and appropriately when complaints are raised about harassment – including harassment based on sexual orientation. It also may be a good time to update your anti-harassment training to specifically address issues of discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation.
There also may be more to come with the Scott Medical case. Now that a final judgment has been entered, an appeal to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals may be forthcoming. If the case is appealed, the Third Circuit likely will be forced to reconsider several prior decisions in which it found that sexual orientation was not protected under Title VII. We will continue to provide updates as developments in this area occur.