Textual Harassment on the Rise

Bruce Mills is an attorney specializing in employment law.

Text messages can prove to be potent evidence in bias suits.

It was a classic he-said, she-said story. Two female soccer players at Central Michigan University accused their coach of sexual harassment, alleging that he manipulated them into having secret sexual relationships with him and lied to his players and to school officials to avoid getting caught. The coach, Tony DiTucci, maintained he was innocent, claiming the two students had made suggestive romantic advances toward him, and that he reported it to his supervisors.

Then came the text messages. The students’ attorney, Jennifer Salvatore, had obtained dozens of messages from the coach to the students, including several allegedly sent to one plaintiff when she was still a senior in high school. “He really used text messaging to lay the groundwork for initiating a physical relationship when she got to campus,” said Salvatore. The texts, Salvatore asserts, proved two things: that her clients were telling the truth and that the coach’s conduct was “inappropriate.” In April, she secured a $450,000 settlement from the university for the women. DiTucci also resigned.

‘A Weird Situation

In recent months, texts have been key in several cases. In a pending federal sexual harassment suit in Connecticut against World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., a former licensing coordinator says the married, senior director of the company’s consumer products division made sexual advances via late-night texts and phone calls. Four waitresses at Famous Dave’s restaurant in Kanawha County, W. Va., also pointed to text messages in pursuing sexual harassment claims against a supervisor last year, alleging, among other things, that he sent text messages asking for sexual favors.

In January, texts helped two women in Ohio secure a $495,000 settlement in a sex scandal that led to the resignation of state Attorney General Marc Dann. The women used texts to help show that they were placed in situations that made the AG’s office a hostile work environment. In one case, one of the women produced a text message that said she was “in a weird situation” and needed a ride home from Dann’s apartment one night.

“For employers, this stuff is an absolute nightmare,” said management-side attorney Steve Palazzolo of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Warner Norcross & Judd, who has developed many policies for employers that address harassment on company time and with company equipment. “But we’ll get through this,” he said. “Everybody flipped about e-mail. Everybody flipped about the Internet. Text messaging — we’ll deal with it.”

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This article was written by brucemills

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