The Law @ Work

$600,000 EEOC Settlement Serves as Reminder to Take All Harassment Complaints Seriously

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) recently settled its lawsuit against the popular New York eatery, Sparks Steak House, for $600,000.  The complaint alleged that Sparks violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by permitting its male managers to sexually harass male waiters over the span of almost eight years.  The alleged acts included groping the male waiters’ buttocks, making lewd sexual comments and attempting to touch the male waiters’ genitals.  According to the EEOC, many waiters complained to Sparks’ owners, as well as to other managers.  Nevertheless, the harassment continued.  In addition, the complaining employees alleged that they suffered retaliation because they were given more difficult work assignments and/or were ultimately suspended as a result of their complaints.

Pursuant to the settlement, the alleged victims will share the $600,000.  As part of the settlement, Sparks is also required to 1) issue written warnings and provide one-on-one remedial anti-discrimination training to two managers; 2) establish a hotline, staffed by an independent company at Sparks’ expense, for reporting workplace discrimination; 3) amend and distribute its sexual harassment policy to all employees; 4) conduct anti-discrimination training for supervisory and non-supervisory employees; 5) post a public notice of settlement and 6) report all complaints of sexual harassment or retaliation to the EEOC.  See EEOC v. Michael Cetta Inc. d/b/a Sparks Steak House, No. 09-10601 (S.D.N.Y), consent decree filed Nov. 15, 2012 for the full terms of the settlement.

Increase in male reporting

The EEOC reports that the percentage of sexual harassment claims filed by men has been steadily growing.  For example, in Fiscal Year 1997, 11.6% of the sexual harassment charges were filed by men.  That number increased to 16.3% in Fiscal Year 2011.  For further information see the EEOC’s sexual harassment statistics: FY 1997 – FY 2011.  While the EEOC did not keep statistics regarding the sex of the harasser in those cases, it reports that, anecdotally, many of the charges appear to involve same-sex sexual harassment.   Further, it is of note that such claims are not limited to one particular industry.  In fact, the EEOC highlights that it currently has two male-on-male sexual harassment lawsuits pending, one against a farm and one against a car dealership.

Unfortunately, as a result of prevalent sexual stereotypes, supervisory personnel may be less inclined to investigate a sexual harassment complaint filed by a male worker.  However, as this case illustrates, this practice may be costly.  Not only was this an expensive settlement for Sparks, but the allegations have also created negative publicity for the restaurant.

Lessons learned

The takeaway here is that all sexual harassment complaints must be taken seriously, regardless of whether the alleged harasser or reporting employee is male or female.  Employers must make sure that sexual harassment complaints are investigated promptly and thoroughly.  If appropriate, the investigation should be followed up with appropriate corrective action.  Employers must also make sure that supervisory personnel are aware that they cannot retaliate against complaining employees.

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