Tales from the Workplace: Sexual Harassment Exposed, Pt. 3

THE CASE OF BIHUN V. AT&T INFORMATION SYSTEMS, INC.

Continuing on in our series discussing real-world scenarios of sexual harassment, today we’ll be examining a case involving what is known as “quid pro quo” sexual harassment. In our previous articles, the stories we’ve highlighted have involved hostile work environments, in which an employee is subjected to sexual comments and inappropriate touching or groping. Quid pro quo harassment differs from hostile work environment situations, in that it usually involves a proposed exchange of sexual favors or activity for an employment benefit, such as a promotion, or in more extreme situations, to avoid termination. This type of harassment tends to involve a manager or supervisor harassing a subordinate employee, with the manager abusing his or her authority in order to pressure the subordinate into submitting to sexual advances. This type of behavior is, unfortunately, fairly common in the workplace, and as you will see in the case of Bihun v. AT&T Information Systems, Inc., can have a devastating effect on persons subjected to such treatment.  The following narrative is based on the factual allegations presented in that case.

The woman in this case, Oksana Bihun, was an area personnel manager working for AT&T. Ms. Bihun was an excellent employee for the company, and her performance allowed her to quickly rise through its ranks. After receiving outstanding reviews, Ms. Bihun received a promotion to the next level of management within the company, in which she reported to Area Vice-president Peter Fellows.

Almost immediately after beginning her new position, Mr. Fellows began an intense campaign of harassment towards Ms. Bihun. During their first meeting, Mr. Fellows winked at Ms. Bihun and brushed his hand against her. Days later, while Ms. Bihun was working late, Mr. Fellows entered into her office with his shirt unbuttoned and pants undone. He then pressed his body against Ms. Bihun, causing her to jump up and exit the office, with Mr. Fellows calling after her. On another occasion, Mr. Fellows sat down next to Ms. Bihun and attempted to rub his foot against her leg. After she kicked his foot away, Mr. Fellows stood up and pushed his groin towards Ms. Bihun, telling her that he had a spot of food on his pants and instructing her to wipe it off. That evening, Mr. Fellows called Ms. Bihun into his office and asked her to have dinner with him. When Ms. Bihun declined, Mr. Fellows asked that she go to the beach with him that weekend. Ms. Bihun again declined, prompting Mr. Fellows to lean back in his chair to reveal that his fly was open.

A week after these requests, Mr. Fellows demanded that he and Ms. Bihun sit down for a “business-related” dinner. Ms. Bihun reluctantly agreed as Mr. Fellows assured that the dinner would be “strictly business.” After arriving at the restaurant, Ms. Bihun sat down at Mr. Fellows’ table, at which point he began complaining to Ms. Bihun about his unsatisfactory sex life, and his need for extramarital affairs. He then informed Ms. Bihun that the company would be undergoing a major reorganization, and that if she “played her cards right” she could have any job she wanted. Mr. Fellows then leaned across the dinner table and began playing with Ms. Bihun’s earring, telling her she looked like a gypsy and asking if she would have an affair with him. Following that request, he menacingly told Ms. Bihun that he did whatever he wanted to in the company, and that no one would question him.

Ms. Bihun reported the dinner to another supervisor at the company the next day. The supervisor confronted Mr. Fellows about Ms. Bihun’s complaint, and he responded that the dinner was none of the supervisor’s business. Soon after that, Mr. Fellows began retaliating against Ms. Bihun, completely gutting her job responsibilities, encouraging employees not to deal with Ms. Bihun, and falsely accusing her of forging documents. Mr. Fellows’ retaliatory acts soon took a physical and emotional toll on Ms. Bihun. She began experiencing headaches, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, sleep disturbances, teeth grinding, a facial twitch, crying spells and depression. After being diagnosed by her doctor with an “adjustment disorder,” as well as depression and anxiety, Ms. Bihun took disability leave from work.

During this time, Ms. Bihun and the other supervisor who confronted Mr. Fellows placed a number of complaints with the company’s supervisory board, but neither received any follow up contact. When Ms. Bihun returned to work months later, she learned that Mr. Fellows had resigned from his position. She was also informed that she had been demoted two levels down from the position she previously held, and would be in a department in which she had never received training.

The treatment Ms. Bihun was subjected to by Mr. Fellows is a textbook case of quid pro quo sexual harassment – sexual advances, accompanied by a promise for an employment benefit in exchange for succumbing to those advances. And the subsequent actions taken against Ms. Bihun were also clear examples of retaliation, both by Mr. Fellows (for spurning his advances), and by AT&T itself, through its demotion of Ms. Bihun after reporting harassment.

Ms. Bihun filed suit against AT&T after her demotion, and the jury agreed – this was clearly quid pro quo harassment. Ms. Bihun was awarded a total judgment against AT&T of over $3,000,000.00, an award that was upheld by the appellate court on appeal.

If you’ve experienced anything similar to Ms. Bihun’s situation, you may well have been subjected to quid pro quo sexual harassment. While these situations can be difficult and frightening to deal with, you should not be afraid to stand up for your rights under the law. If you feel that these rights have been violated, you should contact counsel immediately to learn what options are available to you.

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