While the #MeToo movement has inspired broad cultural change across the globe, shifting the court of public opinion in favor of abuse victims, many believe its impact has yet to reach the actual U.S. courts, where judges continue to enforce a standard that makes proving workplace sexual harassment claims extremely difficult for plaintiffs.
As part of an in-depth piece on the #MeToo movement’s impact on the American justice system, The Atlantic focuses on how claims of a hostile work environment remain a “tough sell” in court.
Since the Supreme Court created the “reasonable person” standard in 1993 as a test for whether a “reasonable person” would find particular conduct to be harassment, it has ended up being a major obstacle to relief. Many survivors have had their views deemed “unreasonable” and had sexual assault allegations dismissed because a judge didn’t think a reasonable person would deem what they experienced to be actual sexual harassment. These incidents have included ones based on repeated, explicit and unwelcome sexual advances. As if that weren’t bad enough, since the 1990’s, many courts have even gone further to state that there must be physical contact to determine whether sexual harassment has occurred. (Anyone who has actually ever been harassed knows that physical interference is categorically not necessary to create full-on abuse.)
So while the behaviors are considered “reasonable” in the workplace have changed drastically from 1993 to now, court outcomes for survivors have decidedly not.
The Atlantic’s piece reviewed nearly two dozen cases involving hostile-work-environment claims that reached federal circuit courts since #MeToo’s inception in October 2017, to see if the courts’ definition of sexual harassment and of what is considered “reasonable” had at all changed. Findings showed that “despite the ongoing public reckoning…sexual-harassment victims continue to lose in court, and their reasonableness—or rather, lack thereof—is what stands in their way.”
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