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Required Handshake With Harasser Definitely Step Too Far

Maria Gracia worked for SigmaTron International, Inc. as an assembly supervisor. After eight years of satisfactory work performance, she began to be harassed by a production manager who supervised her. He sent her emails with nude women in degrading poses, he asked her out, he pulled down her turtleneck to inspect for bite marks, and he called her late at night. She did not complain right away because she feared retaliation.

Just a couple weeks after refusing to go to a late-night party with the manager, she was suspended for tardiness. Once she returned to work, she told the human resources manager about the production manager’s sexually harassing conduct. In response, the HR manager asked if the production manager was “sweet” on her and asked Ms. Gracia if she was on drugs. During a second meeting, Ms. Gracia was taken to the Executive VP’s office. He did not take her complaints seriously. He told her to shake hands with the manager and work together. Ms. Gracia filed an EEOC charge and was fired within two weeks by the supervisor for purported misconduct.

The company appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals after receiving a $300,000 judgment against it. The court of appeals upheld the verdict. Ms. Gracia had easily proven that she had been engaged in protected activity (complaining) and her termination was clearly an adverse employment action, thereby establishing retaliation. In upholding the punitive damages award, the court of appeals found her report of sexual harassment, the false accusation of wrongdoing by the alleged harasser against her, and the employer’s sole response of requiring her to shake the harasser’s hand enough to support it.