Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Defeating an Employer’s Defenses

by Joseph C. Maya on Feb. 21, 2024


Summary: A victim of sexual harassment in the workplace has certain available protections and remedies under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with respect to unwanted amorous advances, inappropriate touching, or an outright physical assault by another employee or co-worker.  Essentially, a victim of sexual harassment must prove in a civil lawsuit that the harassment was “sufficiently severe or pervasive” to alter the conditions of her employment, and that there was a specific basis for imputing the resulting hostile work environment to her employer (and not merely to the harasser).

The Faragher/Ellerth Defense

Under what has become known as the Faragher/Ellerth defense, employers since 1998 have been permitted by the courts to put forth and establish an affirmative defense to victims’ lawsuits against inappropriately behaving employees, so long as they are able to prove one of two things: A) that the victim unreasonably failed to take advantage of a company’s established procedures and opportunities to prevent sexual harassment (such as policies, training, and complaint mechanisms through human resources), or B) that the victim employee complained about the conduct and the employer took prompt and appropriate corrective action (such as an investigation, discipline, and/or termination of the harasser).

If a defendant company succeeds in proving one of these two elements, that company may not be held liable for the sexual harassment of one of its employees, even under some egregious circumstances.  Today, many companies have policies and procedures in place, and in most circumstances, a company can successfully claim that it would have been “unreasonable” for a victim not to complain about a harasser’s misconduct and to put the company on notice when something untoward occurs.

However, sometimes victims do not complain right away.  In some cases, the harassment is committed by a supervisor – someone in a position of power over the victim, with a stranglehold on the victim’s voice, on her employment, on her will.

Supervisor-Subordinate Harassment

Our law makes adjustments accordingly.  Therefore, where the harassment is committed not just by a co-worker of the victim, but by the victim’s work supervisor, the standard shifts dramatically – the employer company is “presumptively responsible” for the harasser’s conduct.  In that instance, also, there is a proscribed limitation under which an employer can put forth the Faragher/Ellerth defense and potentially escape liability.  Specifically, the test becomes whether the supervisor’s harassment (or unwanted sexual advance) culminated in what is known as a “tangible employment action” – such as a demotion, a denial of a promotion, a change in job responsibilities, or a termination of employment.

In other words, in cases of supervisor-subordinate harassment, a trial court applies a test to determine whether the tangible employment action is “linked” in some fashion to the supervisor’s discriminatory harassment.  If indeed a connection is found – if a supervisor, for example, ultimately fires his victim of sexual harassment for fear she will disclose his reprehensible conduct to others – then the Faragher/Ellerth affirmative defense is not available to the employer company.

The purpose of this rule is to insure that, despite the procedures they might put in place to protect their employees from sexual harassment, companies may and often will be held liable and accountable for the actions of supervisors who harass their subordinates and then utilize their positions of power to remove their victims from the workplace.

Maya Murphy P.C. has proudly been included in the 2024 Edition of Best Law Firms®, ranked among the top firms in the nation. In addition, Managing Partner Joseph C. Maya has been selected to The Best Lawyers in America® 2024 for his work in Employment Law and Education Law in Connecticut. Recognition in Best Lawyers® is awarded to firms and attorneys who demonstrate excellence in the industry, and is widely regarded by both clients and legal professionals as a significant honor.

Our firm in Westport, Connecticut serves clients with legal assistance all over the state, including the towns of: Ansonia, Beacon Falls, Bethany, Bethel, Branford, Bridgeport, Brookfield, Cheshire, Danbury, Darien, Derby, East Haven, Easton, Fairfield, Greenwich, Guilford, Hamden, Madison, Meriden, Middlebury, Milford, Monroe, Naugatuck, New Canaan, New Fairfield, New Haven, Newton, North Branford, North Haven, Norwalk, Orange, Oxford, Prospect, Redding, Ridgefield, Seymour, Shelton, Sherman, Southbury, Stamford, Stratford, Trumbull, Wallingford, Waterbury, West Haven, Weston, Westport, Wilton, and Woodbridge. In addition to assisting clients in Connecticut, our firm handles education law and employment law matters in New York as well. 

If you have any questions about employment law or education law in Connecticut, or would like to speak to an attorney about a legal matter, please contact Joseph C. Maya and the other experienced attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C. at (203) 221-3100 or to schedule a free initial consultation today.

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