Nancy Suders quit her job as a Pennsylvania State Police dispatcher after five months because of a barrage of sexual innuendo and harassment that the 60-year-old grandmother says she received from supervisors. She sued the state police. The Philadelphia Inquirer says the U.S. Supreme Court is deciding whether or not she can take her case to trial. The justices must determine whether Suders, having quit in 1998 under what she was said were intolerable conditions, should be entitled to the same legal rights she would have if she had been fired.
The ruling, expected by July, could reshape the contour of sexual-harassment policies in workplaces nationwide. It could force employers to monitor and address a wider spectrum of employee behavior for fear that an employer rather than an individual would be held responsible. Employers now can defend themselves against sexual-harassment claims by demonstrating that they have established procedures for employees to complain. Suders contends that defense should not apply in her case because it was supervisors who harassed her into quitting.
In oral arguments yesterday, her attorney, Don Bailey, told justices that she avoided filing complaints because coworkers threatened to harm her if she did. Several justices, led by Antonin Scalia, took sharp issue with that position. “That doesn’t make the employer responsible,” Scalia said. “She could probably sue the coworkers, but not her bosses.”
Justice Stephen Breyer said the case boiled down to whether a reasonable person in Suders’ position would have done the same thing. “If they would, then I think you win,” Breyer said, referring to the right to sue.
Suders’ suit was dismissed by a district judge, but she won in the U.S Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The Bush administration and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce support the state. Numerous labor and advocacy groups back Suders.