The current wave of high-profile sexual harassment scandals is prompting rapid changes in workplaces far beyond Hollywood, according to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal. But sexual harassment is not the only type of workplace discrimination. There can also be discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, color, age, disability, “genetic information”, and gender identity and/or sexual orientation. These totaled 91,503 cases resulting in $482 million in monetary awards in fiscal 2016 alone, says a recent EEOC data sheet. In comparison, sexual harassment cases are relatively rare. EEOC data on sexual harassment charges shows 6,758 cases in 2016, most of which (54 percent) were found to be without cause. And a recent NPR report stated that only 3-6 percent of sexual harassment cases go to trial; most are settled or, quite often, dismissed.
The standard for trial is high. Since the landmark case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court has held that for sexual harassment to be actionable, it must be “so severe or pervasive” that it created an “abusive working environment.” When companies do have such an environment, penalties are steep. While there is an EEOC cap on damages (ranging from $50,000 for companies with 100 employees or less to $300,000 for the largest companies), many jurisdictions have no cap. In 2012, a federal jury in California awarded the victim $168 million (later reduced) in Ani Chopourian v. Catholic Healthcare West,“potentially the largest judgment in U.S. history for a single victim of workplace sexual harassment,” according to this USA Today overview of high-profile cases.