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EEOC Joins the #MeToo Fight

In the wake of the #metoo movement, which began with accusations of sexual assault against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has become an active player in protecting #metoo victims. The EEOC is the federal agency tasked with investigating and litigating claims of employment discrimination and workplace harassment. Since the #metoo movement began last year, the EEOC has published new guidance on sexual harassment in the workplace and has convened working groups to help study and address the problem. More recently, the EEOC has started to increase the number of sexual harassment claims it pursues in court.

On June 13, 2018, the EEOC filed harassment charges against Master Marine, Inc., an Alabama-based shipbuilding firm. According to the lawsuit, the EEOC filed its lawsuit on behalf of an Asian-American male worker and three black employees who claimed that they were sexually and racially harassed by white male supervisors.

A Brief Overview of Sexual Harassment Law

Sexual harassment (in addition to many other forms of harassment such as racial harassment) is made illegal by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII broadly prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, and sex. As a result of Title VII’s broad coverage, it is illegal for an employer to either engage directly in sexual harassment or to permit its employees to engage in sexual harassment of their fellow co-workers.

Two types of sexual harassment provide the basis for a legal claim. First, quid-pro-quo harassment involves an intentional trade of sex or sexual behavior for perks and benefits in the workplace. Second, hostile work environment harassment is related to the creation of a work environment that impedes an employee’s ability to perform his or her job effectively by permitting harassing acts such as dirty jokes, unwanted flirtations, or groping.

This interpretation of the law is reflected by the EEOC’s published Sexual Harassment Policy Guidelines Documents. The EEOC’s guidance documents are intended both to assist potential claimants with filing harassment charges with the EEOC and to guide employers in creating their own internal anti-harassment policies.

Master Marine and the #MeToo Movement

The Master Marine case is remarkable both because it is one of the EEOC’s more recently filed sexual harassment lawsuits and because it underscores the diversity of the #metoo movement. The #metoo movement has largely focused on male harassment against women, and for good reason. The vast majority of sexual harassment victims are women. That said, the #metoo movement and its organizers have repeatedly emphasized the intersectional nature of the movement. Workplace harassment is also perpetrated against men in so-called male-on-male harassment cases and against minorities and people of color.

In the Master Marine case, the victims claim that they was both racially and sexually harassed. The Asian-American victim claims that he was subjected to repeated vulgar name calling based on his Asian heritage and that a supervisor repeatedly made sexual comments about him and attempted to touch him inappropriately. Similarly, the black employees reported similar instances of racially-charged name calling as well as inappropriate sexual touching.

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