Proposal would remove legal obstacles for sexual harassment victims

A bill pending in the Georgia legislature would overhaul the legal rights of sexual harassment victims, removing obstacles that leave workers vulnerable to having their careers destroyed when a co-worker won’t take no for an answer.

The state currently has no law that specifically prohibits on-the-job sexual harassment, so most victims must take their legal claims to federal courts. There, judges apply a “severe or pervasive” standard to toss out the vast majority of employment discrimination claims.

An investigation published last summer by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that with the odds so stacked against victims, companies have little incentive to take sexual harassment seriously, and employees who speak out often find themselves marginalized at work or with no job at all. State Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, said the story prompted her to work on House Bill 1121, which would allow victims to sue harassers and their employers in state courts.

Under the bill, which has bipartisan support, employers would be protected if they can show they took steps to prevent and address harassment incidents. Workers who complain on someone else’s behalf would also be covered by the law.

Ginny Nye alleged in a lawsuit that she lost her vice president’s position at Alloy Wheel Repair in Norcross after reporting the CEO’s sexual misconduct with one of her subordinates. She sued in federal court, but Magistrate Judge John Larkins III recommended dismissing the crux of her claims.

“The way I feel about it, I wish I’d never gone through any of this effort,” Nye said. “The whole process to me is broken from start to finish.”

Attorney Steven Wolfe, who represents a woman suing MARTA for alleged retaliation after she repeatedly complained about a lewd co-worker, said employers have little incentive to root out harassment when the federal system caps emotional and punitive damages at $300,000. But HB 1121 wouldn't allow punitive damages, only compensatory damages.

Georgia would nevertheless join every other state in the country — other than Alabama and Mississippi — in allowing local juries to weigh accounts of workers' being propositioned, groped or bullied or suffering retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment.

“I think it will make workplaces safer,” said attorney Amanda Farahany, chair of the Georgia Coalition for Safety at Work, who helped draft the bill.

The bill is awaiting approval by the Special Committee on Access to the Civil Justice System, and Nguyen said she hopes to have it up for vote on the House floor Thursday, which is Crossover Day. Its chief sponsor is Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula.

Recognizing political realities in a state that prides itself on business-friendliness, Nguyen said she left out provisions that would have allowed punitive damages and established training requirements for employers.

“The decision was to make it as simple as possible, without adding in the requirements to the employers where the business community would push back on us,” Nguyen said. “It’s not what we would like to see, but a step in the right direction, because we currently have nothing on the books.”

Our reporting

In stories in 2018 and 2019, reporters Jennifer Peebles, Chris Joyner and Johnny Edwards revealed how Georgia state government often failed employees who reported sexual harassment. The investigation prompted Gov. Brian Kemp to make the state Inspector General’s office the clearinghouse for complaints from across the state, to try to ensure that employees were treated fairly.

Further reporting revealed how Georgia’s private-sector employees have little recourse for saving their jobs should employers turn against workers for speaking out about harassment. That’s largely because federal judges, following precedents set by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, dismiss all but a few cases before they ever reach a courtroom. The story prompted lawmakers to introduce House Bill 1121, which would allow victims to sue in state courts.