The Puerto Rico Supreme Court recently held that, in fulfilling their obligation to prevent, prohibit and eradicate sexual harassment in the workplace, employers may adopt rules and regulations that go beyond the requirements of Law No. 17 of April 22, 1988 (“Law 17”), which prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. In doing so, the Supreme Court clarified that an employer is not required to establish a prima facie case of sexual harassment under Law 17 to be able to terminate an employee for violating its sexual harassment policy.
In Rosa Maisonet v. Administración de Servicios Médicos, 2015 T.S.P.R. 19, 192 D.P.R. ___ (2015), plaintiff brought a suit against his government agency employer challenging his termination for violating the agency’s sexual harassment policy. The termination occurred after another employee, whom the plaintiff supervised, complained that the plaintiff had publicly slapped her buttocks. Plaintiff had been employed by the governmental agency for over thirty years and had no disciplinary record. Having conducted an internal investigation and hearing to review the alleged victim’s allegations, the employer fired plaintiff, concluding that he had failed to comply with the agency’s internal regulations and policies prohibiting sexual harassment. Based on the employer’s code of conduct, the discipline for a first violation of the sexual harassment policy could range from a 30-day suspension, as the minimum penalty, to termination from employment, as the maximum penalty. The termination decision was confirmed by the agency after the corresponding administrative process.
On appeal, the Puerto Rico Court of Appeals reversed the agency’s determination and ordered that the plaintiff be reinstated with back pay. The appellate court reasoned, among other things, that the agency had failed to show that plaintiff’s actions constituted hostile work environment sexual harassment under Law 17. The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico granted the agency’s petition for certiorari.
In reversing the Court of Appeals’ decision and upholding the termination, the high court held that an employer is not required to establish a prima facie case of sexual harassment before dismissing an employee for failure to comply with the company’s sexual harassment policies. It explained that there is a difference between what Law 17 requires to establish a cause of action for sexual harassment against an employer, and the affirmative duty that the same law imposes on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. The Supreme Court further noted that as long as the employer’s rules and regulations and their corresponding disciplinary measures are reasonable, employers may go beyond the minimum standards set forth in the law to protect the workplace from sexual harassment and itself from liability.
Although this case involved a governmental agency in the public sector, its implications also apply to employers in the private sector. The Puerto Rico Supreme Court’s opinion reiterates the strong public policy against sexual harassment in the workplace, and serves to validate employers’ reasonable sexual harassment policies, even if its application results in a termination for a first time offense and even if the imputed offense does not rise to the level of sexual harassment under the law.