In television courtroom drama style, all over the legal news this past week we’ve seen updates from the trial in Marchuk v. Faruqi & Faruqi (Case No. 1:13-cv-01669, S.D.N.Y), a case brought by a junior female associate against her former law firm. In an ode to what we would like to think as “days [long] gone by,” the associate alleged that in the few months she was employed with the firm, a firm partner engaged in repeated sexual harassment of her and then sexually assaulted her at the firm holiday party. Faruqi defended on the grounds that all sexual interaction was consensual and that the alleged sexual assault never happened. This past Thursday, a jury found the law firm and partner partially liable for creating a hostile work environment.
I read an article suggesting that this is an isolated instance of a lawyer behaving badly rather than representative of a larger problem in the legal industry.
But is Faruqi really an “outlier?” As employment lawyers, we deal with sexual harassment cases all of the time (although perhaps not always quite as “colorful” as Faruqi). Why would law be different than other vocations? The long hours, close quarters, constant stress, and lack of sleep can be a recipe for disaster when it comes to maintaining decorum in the workplace.
Indeed, a quick search revealed a number of Faruqi-like cases in the news just recently, involving a legal secretary, an in-house lawyer, a paralegal, and another law firm employee, all alleging that they suffered some negative tangible employment action because they declined sexual advances or otherwise were subjected to a hostile work environment.
Many commentators believe it’s still very much a “man’s world” in many professional settings. According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), women comprise at most about 17% of the equity partnership in law firms across the country. And I’m guessing that while things have improved for women on Wall Street since the time of The Wolf of Wall Street, there likely is a ways to go before reaching parity in that industry as well. (Just as a couple of examples.)
(As an aside, being a man in and of itself is a terrible excuse for bad behavior. After recently calling a certain “gentleman” out for completely crossing the line of decency, he gave me the following excuse: “It’s not easy being a guy sometimes . . . testosterone is a strange thing.” As someone who one day may be called to represent such a fool, I cringe at the thought that “I can’t control my testosterone” might be my client’s best defense.)
To be clear – this isn’t to say that women don’t sexually harass men in the workplace. Women can behave badly, too. But cases involving such claims are far less frequent. And it also isn’t to say that all allegations of sexual harassment are founded. They often are not (and I don’t have enough space here for the laundry list of examples I could provide).
The moral of this story: the days of lurid sex scandals in the workplace have not necessarily “gone by.” And although some industries are better equipped to make ugly sexual harassment claims go away quietly, no industry is immune to them. All employers must be vigilant in reminding their employees and those who interact with their employees – at all levels of the company – to be respectful of one another in the workplace. Employers should also consult with counsel to make sure their sexual harassment policies and training programs are up to date.