You know you need anti-sexual harassment policies — and this weird case shows you exactly why.

Estrella Medina-Rivera worked as a part-time, on-call detention officer with MVM, a private firm that provides security services to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

In October 2008, Medina-Rivera told one of her supervisors that an ICE agent (she didn’t know who) had gotten her phone number off a list posted at an ICE control room and was “bothering” her with calls. Her supervisor said he’d look into it, though it’s not clear if he ever did.

Later that month, an ICE agent grabbed Medina-Rivera and started kissing her against her will at work. She only got away when a colleague showed up and the agent stopped.

Medina-Rivera told her supervisor about the incident the next day. She also revealed for the first time that before this incident, the agent would sometimes move very close to her, tell her she “smelled good” and try to hug her. This, apparently, had been going on for months. Medina-Rivera also guessed that the ICE agent was the same one who had been “bothering” her with phone calls.

The manager brought Medina-Rivera’s concerns to upper management, and within a week the ICE agent had been transferred to a different city.

Sexual harassment training incident

Two months later, Medina-Rivera was taking part in a mandatory sexual harassment seminar when the instructor zeroed in on her and asked her to define sexual harassment. Medina-Rivera said she was nervous and embarrassed based on what had happened earlier that year and refused to answer.

The instructor demanded to know the definition, even after Medina-Rivera began to cry. Finally, Medina-Rivera said, “sexual harassment was when one person forces another to sexually humiliate another against her will,” like the instructor had “just done.”

Should company have known?

Medina-Rivera then sued the company, alleging sex discrimination in the form of hostile-work-environment harassment, plus retaliation for challenging the harassment.

Medina-Rivera claimed that the company should have done something after she reported the phone calls to her manager. Since the company failed to take action, she said, she was then assaulted at work.

The court found that argument implausible. Neither the company nor Medina-Rivera knew who called her, so the company didn’t know who to take action against.

Plus, once Medina-Rivera was assaulted, the company put its anti-harassment policy into action, investigating her complaint and transferring the ICE agent to another city within a week.

Medina-Rivera’s retaliation claim failed as well. She said the incident at training was proof she was being retaliated against for reporting the assault. But it turned out that the training instructor had no knowledge about Medina-Rivera’s complaint and, therefore, couldn’t have been retaliating against her.

Sherman & Howard attorney Andrew Volin has the takeaway for employers:

The case is a good reminder that employers must have robust anti-harassment policies in place, and those policies must address harassment both by co-workers and by outsiders who have access to employees as a result of their jobs.

The case is Medina-Rivera v. MVM, Inc.

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