Doe v. Lasch, Cooper, Alfred E. Mann Institute for Biomedical Engineering, University of Southern California*: A Sexual Harassment Case

Adopted September 2016*

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from sexual harassment and forbids employers from retaliating against their employees for filing a charge of harassment or speaking out against harassment. In this case, the plaintiff alleged that she experienced sexual harassment by her employer and was terminated after she reported the behavior. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII, and retaliation against employees who report harassment is alarmingly widespread.

The Story behind the Case

The plaintiff worked for 30 years as an engineer. In a dramatically male-dominated field (just 12 percent of engineers are women), she built a career and made significant contributions to the advancement of technology. She is also an AAUW member and active AAUW Tech Trek supporter.

In 2003, the plaintiff was hired by the Alfred E. Mann Institute at the University of Southern California as a senior engineering manager. She went on to become the senior director of marketing and technology innovation evaluation, a position directly below the executive director, Jonathan Lasch. The plaintiff claims that she was subjected to ongoing sexual harassment by Lasch, who became her supervisor in 2007, and that when she reported the conduct to the senior director of finances and human resources, her claims were disregarded and she faced retaliation for reporting them. After reporting her allegations, she claims that her ability to perform her duties was obstructed, her duties were reassigned, and reprimands were issued. She was terminated in 2015, as was the full four-year scholarship awarded to her daughter by the university through its tuition exchange program.

The plaintiff engaged in arbitration hearings, claiming a hostile work environment and wrongful termination as well as sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. This matter has been resolved.

Why this case Matters

Title VII prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion, and it applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state, and local governments.

What constitutes sexual harassment can vary depending on the situation and people involved. It might include behaviors like unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, direct or indirect threats or bribes for sexual activity, sexual innuendos and comments, sexually suggestive jokes, unwelcome touching or brushing against a person, pervasive displays of materials with sexually illicit or graphic content, and attempted or completed sexual assault.

A hostile-environment claim usually requires proof of a pattern of offensive conduct. Nevertheless, a single, unusually severe incident of harassment may be sufficient to constitute a Title VII violation; the more severe the harassment, the less need to show a repetitive series of incidents. This is particularly true when the harassment is physical.

Title VII forbids employers from retaliating against a victim for filing a charge of harassment or speaking out against harassment. It also protects employees from retaliation if they choose to participate in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing on behalf of a co-worker who they believe has had her or his rights violated under Title VII.

*At her request, the plaintiff’s name has been removed now that the matter has been resolved. Title VII cases are one of the types of cases adopted and supported by the AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund. Although this  case went through arbitration, the AAUW LAF Committee adopted it because sexual harassment is a core issue that AAUW, and specifically LAF, fight to put an end to. Because this case went through arbitration and was not a federal case, AAUW could not offer financial support. However, we dedicated our organizational support to this individual, to her case, and to the upholding of Title VII’s protections.

AAUW Members and Supporters Make It Possible

The AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund has been crucial to the success of many gender discrimination cases during its 35-year history. The case support program provides financial and organizational backing for plaintiffs who are challenging gender discrimination in education and the workplace. The funds come directly from the generous contributions of AAUW members.

This post was written by members of the AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund Committee.