Thursday, June 22, 2000

Court weighs in on harassment

Men can be victims, Ohio justices say

By John McCarthy
The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS — The Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday found that men can be victims of sexual harassment under Ohio law, but the court declined to rule on the issue of harassment because of sexual orientation, throwing out a case for technical reasons.

        The court ruled 6-1 in a Cuyahoga County case that Laszlo J. Hampel, an employee of Food Ingredients Specialties Inc., was abused emotionally by his supervisor but not sexually harassed.

        A county court had ruled that the supervisor's behavior constituted sexual harassment and ordered the supervisor, Jerry Hord, FIS and its parent company, Nestle Food Company, to pay a total of $1.64 million to Mr. Hampel.

        However, the 8th Ohio District Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and ordered a new trial on the claim of infliction of emotional distress. The Supreme Court agreed that sexual harassment had not been proven, but saw no need for a new trial and upheld both the lower court verdict on emotional abuse and the judgment against the defendants.

        The court, in a majority opinion written by Justice Alice Robie Resnick, said Ohio's sexual harassment law requires proof that the harassment was based on sex. Despite testimony that Mr. Hord's words were graphically sexual, he did not harass Mr. Hampel for sexual reasons, the court found.

        “Hord undoubtedly inflicted serious abuse upon Hampel, not because of his sex, but because he was Hampel,” Justice Resnick wrote.

        She also said Ohio's law “protects men as well as women from all forms of sex discrimination in the workplace, including discrimination consisting of same-sex sexual harassment.”

        Justice Resnick listed a set of guidelines for courts interpreting Ohio's sexual harassment law.

        The harassment must be linked to a “tangible economic benefit,” such as a condition for employment, or the victim must show that the harassment was unwelcome, based on sex and committed by a supervisor or by the employer through a failure to take corrective action, Justice Resnick wrote.

        The court was more divided on whether a new trial should have been ordered. A 4-3 court majority ordered no retrial because Nestle, which had appealed the case, did not ask the jury to separate the $368,750 it awarded from the rest of the judgment.

        In a separate decision, the Supreme Court voted 6-1 to dismiss a sexual harassment case from Marion County on technical grounds.

        Douglas Retterer sued Whirlpool Corp., claiming he was sexually harassed and ridiculed by two supervisors. The trial court found no wrongdoing by Whirlpool, but Mr. Retterer amended his suit to restore Whirlpool as a defendant.

        The 3rd Ohio District Court of Appeals reinstated most of Mr. Retterer's claims but upheld the dismissal of the sexual harassment complaint.

        The appeals court said the harassment occurred because of his sexual orientation and did not violate Ohio law. The appeals court found that Mr. Retterer “conceded that many of these incidents were sexual-orientation harassment and not sexual discrimination.”

        The Supreme Court found that Mr. Retterer's appeal did not include the question of sexual harassment and thus the issue was improperly brought to the court.


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