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Worker's same-sex harassment award upheld

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A federal appeals court has upheld a $300,000 jury award in which the plaintiff said he was the victim of same-sex harassment by a fellow worker.

Jeffrey L. Smith, who worked as a support technician at the Murfreesboro, Tennessee, plant operated by Norcross, Georgia-based Rock-Tenn Services Inc., a corrugated box company, filed suit against the firm stating he had been harassed during three incidents which escalated physically, according to Wednesdays' ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in Jeffrey L. Smith v. Rock-Tenn Services, Inc.

In June 2011, Mr. Smith suffered an anxiety attack and requested sick leave, which was granted, but did not return to work. His licensed clinical social worker diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. His alleged harasser was fired in July 2013, after admitting he had “mooned” or touched other men in the workplace, said the ruling.

Mr. Smith filed suit in U.S. District Court in Nashville, Tennessee, in June 2012, on charges including a hostile work environment. Following a February 2014 trial, a jury returned a verdict in Mr. Smith's favor, awarding him $307,000 in compensatory damage, which the court later reduced to $300,000 to comply with a statutory damages cap.

Rock-Tenn appealed the jury verdict and sought a new trial, which a three-judge appeals court panel unanimously denied. Rock-Tenn maintained that the harasser's behavior was “mere horseplay,” said the ruling. The jury apparently found that the harasser's suggestive actions went “far beyond horseplay,” the ruling said.

The ruling said Rock-Tenn “did not separate the men, suspend (the harasser) pending an investigation, or initiate its investigation in a timely manner; a reasonable jury could find that the failure to take any of these steps or others rendered its response neither prompt nor appropriate in light of what it knew or should have known regarding (the harasser's) prior misconduct.”

In 2014, San Francisco-based Wells Fargo Bank N.A. agreed to pay $290,000 to settle a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit in which the bank was charged with creating a sexually hostile work environment at one of its branches, where four female employees were allegedly subject to same-sex harassment.