Texas Supreme Court backs worker in sexual assault claim

By Chuck Lindell (2/24/2017)

Clarifying state law on sexual harassment claims, the Texas Supreme Court on Friday sided with a Frisco restaurant worker who accused her supervisor of sexual assault in 2011.

B.C., as she is known in court documents, sued Steak ’n Shake and her boss for sexual assault, negligence and emotional distress after the man grabbed and tried to kiss her, pinned her against a sink and wall, attempted to remove her clothes and exposed himself while they were alone after the restaurant had closed, her lawsuit said. She was able to escape only after the man lost his balance and fell, the lawsuit said.

A district judge and state appeals court, however, rejected B.C.’s lawsuit, ruling that she was instead required to sue under a state law designed to punish workplace sexual harassment — a law that, caps damage awards at $300,000, while there is no cap on assault claims.

Organizations that help crime and abuse victims criticized the court rulings for failing to distinguish between a violent sexual assault and harassment involving unwanted sexual advances or flirtation — in essence offering less legal protection to victims of sexual assault than is given to other victims of physical assault.

On Friday, a unanimous Texas Supreme Court ruled that the state law on sexual harassment — the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act, or TCHRA — doesn’t apply in cases of assault, and that what B.C. described in her lawsuit was clearly sexual assault.

The court rejected Steak ’n Shake’s claim that “sexual assault is always sexual harassment” under TCHRA, a law that extends additional protection to victims of workplace harassment — such as creating a hostile work environment or tying promotions and job performance to sexual favors.

B.C. didn’t accuse Steak ’n Shake or her supervisor of harassment, the court said.

“What she does allege is that on a single occasion her supervisor … without warning and without prior incident, sexually assaulted her at a Steak N Shake restaurant,” said Justice Paul Green, writing for the court.

“B.C.’s claim is not an effort to repackage harassment into assault so as to recover (a higher damage award). The essence of B.C.’s claim is assault,” Green said.
In writing the law, the Legislature didn’t intend to reward assailants by capping damage awards “simply because those assaults occurred in the workplace and not elsewhere,” Green wrote.

“Neither the TCHRA’s text nor its purpose … requires such an extreme result,” he wrote.

Matthew Kita, B.C.’s lawyer, said the ruling set an important standard in fairness.

“If he had beaten her senseless with his fists, there would be no limitations under assault. But because he tried to rape her, the damages are capped at $300,000? That makes no sense,” he said.

Thursday’s ruling returned B.C.’s lawsuit to the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals to decide two remaining issues: whether the supervisor was acting as a “vice principal” of Steak ’n Shake, making the company liable for his actions; and whether B.C. is limited to filing a worker’s compensation claim, as Steak ’n Shake argues.

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