Accused Harasser Entitled to His Day in "Court"

September 13, 2002 ( - The former manager of a United HealthCare (UHC) technical support team can pursue his lawsuit charging that his former employer improperly fired him for sexual harassment, a judge ruled.

Middlesex County Judge Yolanda Ciccone ruled that UHC is liable for wrongful discharge claims for terminating plaintiff John Grasser Jr. without properly investigating the allegation. Ciccone scheduled an October 7 trial in the case, the New Jersey Law Journal reported.

Ciccone ruled that a series of prior New Jersey cases held that companies are obligated to conduct a fair and thorough sexual harassment probe. If they don’t and let go an accused harasser anyway, the companies open themselves to potential litigation, Ciccone said, according to the Law Journal story.

According to Ciccone, firing a worker for having a consensual sexual relationship – an element in Grasser’s case — violates earlier decisions, which found that such workplace flings legally aren’t automatically sexual harassment.

UHC counsel John Turner argued unsuccessfully to Ciccone that the interpretation she adopted would subject companies to unwarranted second-guessing by judges and juries vindicating a new corporate duty to alleged harassers.

But Ciccone bought the argument advanced by Grasser’s lawyer, Christopher Lenzo, about the importance of having employers carry out a proper harassment probe. That requirement should work for the benefit of falsely accused harassers, too, Lenzo said.

Consenting Adults?  

According to the New Jersey Law Journal story, the plaintiff, Grasser had a one- or two-month consensual relationship with a secretary; whether she was Grasser’s subordinate or a co-worker is in dispute.

Both sides agree, though, that the affair ended and they continued working together for about three weeks until her boyfriend found out and asked her to quit. In March 1999, the secretary resigned and during her exit interview told the human resources department about the relationship with Grasser and the boyfriend’s reaction.

That prompted a sexual harassment investigation, and though the woman never accused Grasser of any improper behavior, the probe turned up evidence that Grasser had violated sexual harassment policy, company officials said in depositions.

The investigation found, for example, that Grasser pressured the secretary to continue dating him after she wanted to end the relationship and that he made another female employee uncomfortable by making specific references to the sexual nature of his relationship with the secretary, the defense evidence showed.