Legal Briefing: Sexual Harassment Claims by Men Spike

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Is the Recession Pushing Men Out of the Sexual Harassment Closet?

While the stereotypical image of a sexual harassment victim is a woman preyed on by a male boss, women aren't the only victims. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data show that complaints by men are up 12% from 2006 to 2009, jumping from 1,869 to 2,094.

As the article notes, social pressures have long made it difficult for men to complain about their suffering. Moreover, in a strong economy, men found it relatively easy to just change jobs and resolve the problem that way. Traditionally, the only claims being filed were the groping kind, but the article reports that hostile workplace claims based on pervasive locker room talk and racy horseplay are increasingly being filed by men as well (the article notes that most of the alleged harassers are men). What's going on?

The Journal's analysis suggests a link between the increase in complaints and the recession, noting that men have been particularly hard hit by layoffs. But a table in the Journal's article also suggests something else may be at work; of the five states with the highest percentage of claims filed by men, Utah (32.2%), West Virginia (27.3%), Michigan (26.6%), Wyoming (24%) and Wisconsin (23%), only Michigan has unemployment in the double digits, and Utah has one of the lowest rates in the nation.

The Journal cites Nebraska, which had its claims by men plunge from 23.4% to 12.7% over the same period, as evidence tying the increase to unemployment. True, Nebraska has the second lowest unemployment rate in the country right now, but in 2006 it was even lower. Unemployment has actually increased in Nebraska, even as the number of claims by men fell. And in 2006, when Nebraska unemployment was under 4%, the percentage of claims being filed by men was significantly above the national average.

While some of the recent uptick may well be due to men's recession-driven inability to get or keep jobs, surely some of it is statistical artifact. When very low numbers of cases are involved, slight changes can drive big percentage shifts. With only 2,094 claims nationally last year, the numbers in many states are likely quite small. Indeed, looking at the EEOC data from 1997 to the present, claims by men have moved up and down in a band of approximately 1,800 claims to 2,200 claims in a pattern that does not track unemployment. For example, the last previous time that at least 2,000 claims were filed by men each year was from 2000 to 2002, a period of low national unemployment.

So, what can we make of the new numbers? Is it recession-driven, a statistical artifact, or a new male empowerment to speak out? It doesn't really matter as long as the problem is getting attention. Sexual harassment is about power, and in the workplace, power isn't defined by brute force. Men are just as vulnerable as women.

And in the Business of Law...

The New York Law Journal reports that Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories (home of DNA discoverer James Watson) has sued Ropes and Gray for malpractice, alleging Ropes botched valuable patent applications. One of the more shocking features of the case is plagiarism. Ex-Ropes attorney Matthew Vincent copied multiple pages of rival labs' patent applications without attribution in the failed applications for Cold Spring. In its recently filed motion to dismiss the case, Ropes doesn't dispute the plagiarism -- calling it "perfectly ethical and legal" -- instead, the firm asserts the patent applications failed for other reasons. They may well have, as the article explains, but that doesn't make plagiarism ethical.

Turns out Vincent was more than a serial plagiarizer. He also secretly owned a patent database company that billed the firm and its clients about $730,000. Ropes and Gray fired him last year after discovering his self-dealing, and Vincent has since resigned from the bar.

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