Many actors, politicians and executives, are now facing sexual-harassment allegations in the court of public opinion. The latest was Matt Lauer of NBC’s “Today” show, who was fired for inappropriate conduct. In actual courts, cases filed by workers against their employers are very often dismissed by judges, NPR reports. The standard for harassment under the law is high, and only an estimated 3 percent to 6 percent of the cases ever make it to trial. That stands in stark contrast to the large numbers of people who say they have experienced sexual harassment. A quarter to half of women polled in surveys report having been sexually harassed at work. Only a small fraction — estimates range around 5 to 15 percent — report their complaints to their employers, largely due to fear of retaliation.
Legal experts say the high dismissal rate of sexual harassment cases also has a chilling effect. “You’ll see case after case where a woman was groped at work and the court will dismiss the case as a matter of law, finding that’s not sexual harassment,” says University of Cincinnati Prof. Sandra Sperino. In 1986, the Supreme Court said the behavior needs to be “severe or pervasive” in order to qualify as harassment, whether it’s on the basis of sex or race. Sperino says judges’ interpretations of what qualifies are out of step with common sense and standard office policies. A 2007 Supreme Court case raised the bar still further, says Laura Beth Nielsen of the American Bar Foundation and Northwestern University. “What you have to prove is that somebody is acting with intention, so that’s a much higher standard,” which leads to more pretrial dismissals, she says.