Three King County female detectives have agreed to a $1 million settlement in their sexual harassment lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office. According to a recent Seattle Times article, the three detectives work in the Special Assault Unit, a unit where one would expect a certain level of sensitivity. However, among the complaints in the lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office are “rampant acts of sexual harassment,” verbal abuse, and years of ignored complaints. The three detectives, who have worked for the Sheriff’s Office and in the unit for years, claimed that there was a culture of sexual harassment and degrading women in the office. Some of the men in the unit would allegedly mock the statements of sexual assault victims, as well as discussing their own sexual prowess and commenting about the women’s attributes.
Additionally, they claim that even sergeants, those subordinate to detectives, were not reprimanded for belittling female officers and clients. Prior to filing the lawsuit, changes had already begun but on a much smaller scale. There were internal investigations into the conduct of two sergeants and they were transferred out of the unit. In the settlement, the Sheriff’s Office is not admitting that sexual harassment occurred, but there will be both an internal apology and annual sexual harassment training. Along with the non-financial portions of the settlement, which are not uncommon in sexual harassment settlements, the financial portion will be split among the three detectives. Interestingly, none of the detectives quit because of the offensive behaviors, despite the situation continuing for years. As a result the $1 million is solely for the suffering and emotional trauma the detectives experienced over the years.
Hostile Work Environments
The on-going, derogatory and harassing actions of the sergeants and others in the unit created a hostile work environment. Hostile work environments can take on many forms and are sometimes hard to identify. Additionally, some work environments may seem hostile, but will not satisfy the requirements for legal action. Calling people names or generally being an offensive individual to everyone creates a hostile workplace. But unless it is related to a protected ground or directed a specific person or group of people for a specific protected reason, it will likely not be legally actionable. In this case, the sergeants and others made comments to the women about sex, sexual prowess, and their physical appearance. All of these items relate to sexual harassment
and discrimination which are prohibited by law. On the other hand calling the female detectives “stupid” or “incompetent” would likely not be prohibited, unless it was along the lines of “all women are stupid or incompetent,” which would be related to a person’s sex and illegal. This is one of the reasons that identifying a hostile work environment is complicated, and possibly why the three female detectives continued working in the unit, despite the situation.
If you believe you have suffered from sexual harassment in the workplace, contact a HKM employment attorney for help.