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DENVER -- A suit filed against an employer that took multiple measures to assure the safety of the alleged victim of sexual harassment could have the perverse effect of discouraging other employers from taking strong actions to stop sexual harassment if the plaintiff prevails, according to some employment law experts.
The suit was filed against Golden, Colo.-based Adolph Coors Co. by Yvonne Mannon in U.S. District Court in Denver earlier this month. Ms. Mannon alleges that the brewer did not meet its responsibility to prevent a hostile work environment and was negligent in its supervision by allowing sexual harassment to occur at its brewery in Golden. She charged that the company violated its own sexual harassment policies by not moving quickly enough to stem the problem.
Coors holds that it moved quickly and decisively to deal with the problem, ultimately firing eight workers for alleged misconduct. Some were later reinstated on appeal to an internal Coors review board, said a Coors spokesman.
Coors' efforts did not stop there, according to the company. After Ms. Mannon received death threats and in an unexplained accident nearly drowned while cleaning a brewing tank, the company installed security doors and an alarm system at her home, provided her around-the-clock security guards and paid for other safety measures, steps that cost the company more than $300,000. When Ms. Mannon said she remained too scared to work, the company provided medical leave with full pay and other benefits.
Despite those efforts, Coors still failed to meet its responsibility, contends Ms. Mannon's attorney.
"The suit alleges that the company was put on notice by Ms. Mannon over a protected period of time and that the supervisors knew about it. And according to Coors' sexual harassment policy, those supervisors were responsible for taking action," said David C. Feola, partner in the Denver law firm King Minnig Clexton & Feola L.L.C. Mr. Feola added that "the law here is very clear that a company is liable for its supervisors' actions and omissions to act."
Some employment law experts fear that if Ms. Mannon prevails, employers won't be as willing to take the type of extraordinary steps Coors did to protect an employee.
"I think there are two potential effects that the publicity about this case may have. I hope that the publicity doesn't cause either of these two results," said Karen Ludington, president of Ludington Co. Inc., a Holden, Mass.-based employment consultant.
"One is that employers may be more reluctant in the future to take strong and sometimes costly actions to stop sexual harassment, because they may think that it isn't going to do them any good. That would be unfortunate, because when sexual harassment actually does occur, it can be very damaging not only to the direct victim but to co-workers and managers and the company's reputation," she said.
"The second possible effect that I see and fear is that employees may read about this and decide to follow Ms. Mannon's lead and push for financial relief even when their companies have done everything humanly possible to help them, and I think that would also be unfortunate," Ms. Ludington said.
The Coors case means an employer is "sued if you do and sued if you don't," said Robin Conrad, vp of the National Chamber Litigation Center in Washington, an arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The suit "shows we've reached a place where it's almost a full-time job for a human resource manager to make sure that the alleged victim of harassment is protected from any of the potential retaliation she might suffer for voicing her complaint," said Gerald L. Maatman Jr., partner with Baker & McKenzie in Chicago who is in charge of the firm's employment law practice.
No date has been set for a trial.
The Coors spokesman noted that one of the eight workers fired has sued Coors as well, claiming the company unfairly terminated him and that he was the victim of racial discrimination. Coors denies the allegations.