A Virginia healthcare company, Southwest Virginia Community Health System, recently agreed to pay $30,000 to settle a sexual harassment suit brought against it by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC lawsuit alleged a female receptionist at one of the company’s clinics was sexually harassed by a male patient. The complaint alleged the employee complained to her supervisor about the sexual harassment, but the company did nothing to protect her from future harm.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are liable for harassment by non-employees if the employers know about the harassment and fail to take immediate and appropriate corrective action. In this case, the EEOC filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia to enforce this obligation against Southwest Virginia Community Health System. The EEOC had previously tried to settle the case, but the company had refused. After the lawsuit was filed, the company agreed to pay $30,000 to the affected worker and to conduct training for all employees on sexual harassment prevention; post a notice about the settlement; provide a copy of its sexual harassment policy to all employees; and report future sexual harassment complaints to the EEOC.
In a statement about the settlement, Lynette Barnes, the EEOC’s regional attorney, said, "employers have a responsibility to prevent sexual harassment not only by co-workers, but also by third parties, including patients and customers. Employers need to adopt measures to end sexual harassment that has been reported to the appropriate supervisor regardless of who is perpetrating the misconduct.” This case is an important reminder to employers that their obligation to protect employees from harassment extends not just to co-workers and supervisors within the company, but also to customers, vendors, independent contractors, clients, patients, and other third parties who interact with the company’s employees. Employers should be sure their harassment policies encourage employees to report harassment from any source, including third parties, and such reports should be promptly and thoroughly investigated regardless of whether the alleged harasser is a company employee.