The media has been abuzz about the sex harassment allegations made against GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain while he was head of the National Restaurant Association back in the late 1990’s. Reports now say that one of the women who has made the allegations was paid $35,000, which was a years salary. Political pundits, campaign staffers and many others have bantered about whether the allegations are true, what really happened and what really motivated these women to make these claims. While I can’t say whether the allegations are true, I thought it might be beneficial to provide the legal definition of sex harassment and my perspective on the situation.
The Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) defines sexual harassment in the workplace to include:
unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexually motivated physical contact or other verbal or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature when: (1) submission to that conduct or communication is made a term or condition, either explicitly or implicitly, of obtaining employment…; (2) submission to or rejection of that conduct or communication by an individual is used as a factor in decisions affecting that individual’s employment…; or (3) that conduct or communication has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an individual’s employment … environment.
Details of one of the alleged victim’s allegations include that Cain made unwanted sexual advances towards her at a company sponsored event and possibly inviting her up to his hotel room. She also allegedly told more than one person about the incident and that she felt it constituted harassment. This woman’s attorney is reportedly looking to release a more detailed statement of her allegations to the press, but is subject to a confidentiality provision in her settlement agreement.
If Cain did in fact make unwanted sexual advances towards this woman, he arguably engaged in sexual harassment that may have violated state and federal law. However, without additional details, it is difficult to say. We will have to check back in on this one.
I can state, however, that in my experience, paying a woman a full year’s salary in exchange for a release of claims is not the norm when an employer truly believes that the harassment allegations are baseless, as Cain has repeatedly stated. While $35,000 is not enough to retire on, back in the 1990’s it wasn’t peanuts either.