Women and Justice: Keywords


Analysis of the precedents of the Cantonal Courts on the Gender Equality Act (2017)

Employment discrimination, Gender discrimination, Sexual harassment

The study is an in-depth analysis of 190 records of cantonal conciliation hearings and judgments under the Federal Gender Equality Act, 1996 (the “Act”) over the period of 2004 to 2015 by authors Karine Lempen (Law Professor, University of Geneva) and Aner Voloder (Lawyer, Office for Gender Equality of the Municipality of Zurich).  Among the major findings and conclusions reached in the study are the following:

Proceedings under the Act are nearly always brought by private individuals (mainly women) and very rarely by organizations, notwithstanding the provision of the Act authorizing court actions relating to gender discrimination to be brought by organizations. Individuals bringing a case of gender discrimination to the courts most commonly complain of pay discrimination or discriminatory dismissal, and in the vast majority of cases employment has ceased before the court issues its judgment.  Bringing an action under the Act very often entails losing one's job. Almost one-third of discrimination cases relate to pregnancy or maternity, with discrimination often occurring on return to work after maternity leave and the mother being dismissed by the employer. Discriminatory or constructive dismissal cases are often adjudged solely under Swiss employment laws rather than under the specific provisions of the Act. In some cases this has resulted in a failure to relax the plaintiff’s burden of proof as provided in the Act. Most persons bringing proceedings for gender-based discrimination do not win their cases, with the analysis showing that 62.5% of rulings enforcing the Act find mostly or entirely against the claiming employee. Similarly, it is not unusual for the employee in the action to be ordered to pay costs which may amount to several thousand Swiss francs. The protection in the Act against constructive dismissal has proved to be fairly ineffective in practice, with court actions rarely being brought under that provision and all but one of such actions failing. The failure rate is particularly high (82.8%) when the alleged form of discrimination is sexual harassment, with the courts often failing to recognize that the intention of procuring sexual favors is not necessary to a finding of a hostile working environment, and therefore of sexual harassment under the Act.  Moreover, it is rare for judgments to assess the extent to which the employer has met its obligation to prevent harassment. The special compensation allowed under the Act for sexual harassment is rarely awarded.

Based on the conclusions reached in the study, the authors make a number of recommendations -- for amendments to the Act and other specific legislative changes, improved training of the judiciary with regard to the Act, actions by Swiss equality offices (including improved data collection, more in-depth study of maternity-based discrimination in Switzerland and actions to raise awareness generally of the Act and the rights it provides), and universities (to require study of the Act as part of the bachelor’s degree course of study in law) -- in order to improve access to justice for people discriminated against on grounds of gender in working life.

Domestic Case Law

Bazemore v. Performance Food Group, Inc. Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Knoxville (2015)

Employment discrimination, Sexual harassment

The plaintiff was employed by the defendant as a sales manager. Another sales manager in her office sexually harassed her verbally and physically. He repeatedly made sexually explicit comments towards her and grabbed her buttocks on one occasion. The plaintiff sued in the Hamilton County Circuit Court, alleging sexual harassment and constructive discharge in violation of the Tennessee Human Rights Act (“THRA”). The Circuit Court granted summary judgment in favor of her employer, and the Court of Appeals of Tennessee affirmed, finding that the employer took reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment.

Sanders v. Lanier Supreme Court of Tennessee (1998)

Employment discrimination, Sexual harassment

The plaintiff worked as a youth services officer with the Dyer County Juvenile Court, where she alleged that a Chancery Court judge sexually harassed her verbally and physically. When she rejected his advances, the judge demoted her from her supervisory position, denied her salary increases, and altered her job requirements weekly. She sued the judge for quid-pro-quo sexual harassment, in violation of the Tennessee Human Rights Act (“THRA”). The Dyer County Chancery Court determined that the State was not the plaintiff’s employer for purposes of the THRA and dismissed her complaint for failing to state a cause of action. The Court of Appeals of Tennessee reversed and the Supreme Court of Tennessee affirmed the Court of Appeals decision. The Supreme Court of Tennessee held that the plaintiff did state a cause of action because the State was the plaintiff’s employer and the defendant was a supervisor acting in the scope of his employment, making the employer strictly liable under an “alter-ego” theory of liability.

Phiri v. Smallholder Coffee Farmers Trust Industrial Relations Court of Malawi (2007)

Employment discrimination, Sexual harassment, Sexual violence and rape

The plaintiff, Phiri, was a security guard. She was employed on a fixed term renewable contract, renewable upon satisfactory performance. On December 26, 2005, near the end of her employment term, one of Phiri’s colleagues attacked her and attempted to rape her, only stopping after being apprehended when the plaintiff shouted for help. The plaintiff reported the incident to her employer’s management. In response, the company’s management accused her of misconduct for revealing to the public what the company considered an internal matter. On December 31 2005, the company fired the plaintiff citing the expiring fixed term contract for support. The plaintiff brought her case in front of the Industrial Relations Court of Malawi (the “Court”). The Court found that she had reason to believe her contract would have been renewed and that the company’s failure to renew her contract was based on the attempted rape incident. According to the Court, the company’s action breached an implied term of Phiri’s employment contract relating to mutual trust and confidence as well as the company’s obligation under the contract to protect female employees. The Court found that this incident was sexual harassment. Until recent amendments to the Employment Act, the labor laws of Malawi did not address sexual harassment. The closest Malawi’s labor regulation came to prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace was § 5 of the Employment and Labor Relations Act read with § 20 of Malawi’s Constitution, which prohibits unfair discrimination in all forms. Despite the lack of a legal provision specifically addressing sexual harassment, the Court found that inappropriate sexually based behavior (e.g. sexual advances) creates a hostile work environment and leads to unfair labor practices. Therefore, the Court found Phiri’s dismissal invalid and held that the company violated Phiri’s “right to fair labor practices, the right to work, her right to safe working environment and personal dignity” (p 4).

Gregory v. Daly United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (2001)

Gender discrimination

Plaintiff alleged that she was subjected to a hostile work environment and that when she complained, her employer fired her in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). Plaintiff argued that her executive director subjected her to sexual ridicule, advances, and intimidation. He also intensified his harassment in response to her complaints, deprived her of work responsibilities, undermined her ability to do her job, and ultimately fired her. The lower court dismissed her case. On appeal, however, the Second Circuit Court of Appeal reversed that decision. It found that Plaintiff could reasonably have found her workplace to be both physically and sexually threatening, based on her allegations about the executive director. It reasoned that the alleged environment could have hurt Plaintiff’s job performance, discouraged her from remaining on the job, or kept her from advancing in her career. Thus, the court concluded, the conduct alleged was contrary to Title VII’s objective of promoting workplace equality. The appeals court also found that Plaintiff could proceed with her case against her employer for retaliation because he fired her after she complained about his behavior.