Jepsen spotlights court affirmation of state’s right to fire employees for harassment

It’s not often that a Democratic elected official goes out of his way to spotlight a legal win over AFSCME Council 4, one of the state’s major labor unions. But the case publicized Thursday by Attorney General George Jepsen was an affirmation of the state’s authority to terminate an employee who engages in on-the-job sexual harassment.

“As a matter of public policy, this is a very important decision that has significant implications for state agencies,” Jepsen said. “The court has affirmed that there is a strong public policy against on-the-job misconduct that is so egregious that in certain circumstances it may require nothing less than an individual’s termination.”

In an opinion by Chief Justice Chase Rogers, the state Supreme Court this week upheld lower court decisions overturning an abitrator’s ruling that had reinstated a fired correction officer and reduced his punishment from termination to a one-year suspension without pay or benefits.

Justice Dennis G. Eveleigh dissented, saying the court was usurping the role of the arbitrator.

The officer had subjected a co-worker to unrelenting stream of abuse and crude comments and behavior about the co-worker’s sexual orientation, the court found.

“Sexual harassment can create a hostile work environment not only for the victimized individual but also for other employees who consistently witness inappropriate behavior,” Jepsen said. “As an employer, state agencies – through their commissioners and supervisory staff – have a legitimate interest and responsibility to ensure a safe, respectful and orderly work environment. The court’s decision this week ensures that individuals who knowingly engage in inappropriate behavior can be removed from the work environment when all attempts to remedy the situation fail.”