Sexual Harassment Claims by Men Growing but Not Equal

Critics say sexual harassment claims by men are still harder to pursue.

March 25, 2010, 10:25 AM

March 26, 2010 — -- After Jed Lorenzen won his sexual harassment lawsuit, he bought himself a new suit.

"It's my power suit to remind me that's what you get when you stand up for yourself," the 33-year-old Los Angeles, Calif. man said.

When it comes to alleged sexual harassment, more men are standing up for themselves these days. Of the nearly 12,700 sexual harassment complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission in the 2009 fiscal year, 16 percent -- some 2,030 -- came from men. That's up from 9.9 percent, or roughly 1,430, a decade-and-half earlier. The number of complaints from men increased even as the number of overall cases have declined.

"It's not really clear whether more men are being subjected to harassment or more men are willing to come forward," said Ernest Haffner, a senior attorney adviser at the EEOC. "There are more decisions in the courts dealing with sexual harassment by men -- it could be that just more men are aware of their rights as they speak to attorneys."

But just because more men are filing claims, it doesn't mean male victims have achieved parity with their female counterparts -- at least not in the public eye, some experts say.

Attorney Keith Fink, who represented Lorenzen and his twin brother Wyatt in a complaint the two filed against a restaurant, says men still face a stigma in speaking out about sexual harassment. That's true for both male and female-instigated harassment, he said.

"People either are homophobic or they think men can weather the storm of verbal barrage better than a female, or they're just not as empathetic as a female (victim)," he said.

In the Lorenzens' case, a jury awarded the brothers $1,000 each in damages, a figure Fink suspects would have been much higher had his clients been women.

Jed Lorenzen agrees.

"I thought the monetary amount was quite ridiculous, but I think it was because we weren't women up there on the stand, breaking down and crying and looking, I guess, 'more weak.'"

"I don' t consider women weak," he added, "(but) I think because we are men, our case wasn't taken as seriously."

Fink said that the potential for lower awards -- and hence, lower attorney's fees -- is one reason why some attorneys may decline to pursue sexual harassment complaints.

Not all claims are resolved with small awards, however. Some male sexual harassment cases have resulted in payments of tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, including a lawsuit filed by the EEOC against the restaurant chain, The Cheesecake Factory. A settlement reached between the EEOC and the chain last November stipulated that The Cheesecake Factory pay $345,000 to six male employees who claimed they had been subject to "sexually abusive behavior" such as "simulated rape" at a Cheesecake Factory restaurant in Chandler, Ariz., according to an EEOC statement and court documents.

In court documents filed in response to the lawsuit, The Cheesecake Factory argued that the employees had not been "subjected to unlawful sexual harassment." After the settlement was announced, the chain released a statement to the press saying that it had agreed to the settlement to prevent continued litigation and continued to deny wrongdoing.

Twin Brothers Claim Unwanted Touching

In their claim, the Lorenzen brothers alleged that, in 2006, the two male owners of Los-Angeles-based Vermont Restaurant touched them in inappropriate ways, including one instance in which one of the owners inserted his finger into Wyatt Lorenzen's buttocks. The brothers, who worked as waiters at the restaurant, also accused the owners of making sexual comments, including one owner's claims that he masturbated to photographs of the brothers.

The restaurant owners, Michael Gelzhiser and Manuel Nesta, have maintained that the brothers' allegations were false. In court documents, the owners -- who have since sold the restaurant -- argued that the brothers themselves engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior toward co-workers and customers. (Lorenzen denies the allegation.)

Gelzhiiser and Nesta's attorney, Jonathon Kaplan, said that though the jury awarded the brothers $1,000 each in general damages, the jury denied to award punitive damages -- an important point, he said.

"Punitive or exemplary damages are awarded in order to make an example of an egregiously acting defendant or to punish a defendant," he said. The jury did not find "the requisite behavior or outrageous conduct by defendants in order to impose" such awards.

With respect to male-against-male sexual harassment or same-gender harassment in particular, Los Angeles-based career strategist Cynthia Shapiro said victims often find frustration in trying to appeal for help within their own companies. Companies may feel uncomfortable pursuing complaints against gay or lesbian managers because they fear being labeled homophobic.

"The gay population is very well protected right now," she said. "Companies are sometimes really caught in the middle … The protected class can rise up very strongly and they have the law on their side and I think companies are too scared" to take action against them.

Explaining the Increase

Experts have several theories as to why more men are filing complaints. One is that more men felt comfortable filing complaints against fellow male co-workers after the landmark 1998 U.S. Supreme Court case, "Oncale v. Sundowner," in which an oil rig worker levied charges of sexual harassment against male co-workers and a supervisor. The court ruled unanimously that federal civil rights laws that ban sex discrimination also apply to same-gender sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment by women against men, meanwhile, took on a cultural resonance in the 1990s after the release of the 1994 film "Disclosure," starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore. In the film, Moore starred as Douglas' sexually aggressive boss.

"I think that's what really brought awareness to the forefront -- that's when training started to include awareness on both sides," Shapiro said.

The increase may also stem from a recession that's seen many more men lose their jobs than women. Fink said that sexual harassment claims often begin as wage and hour claims -- complaints over unpaid overtime, for instance -- by fired employees.

Questions about sexual harassment will arise as lawyers seek to discern whether there are other claims to be filed against their clients' former employers.

"Lawyers will try to twist your arm, see if there's any other claims because there's a finite amount of money involved in wage and hour claims," Fink said.

Discrimination claims can net more money, especially when businesses have employment practice liability insurance, which covers companies for discrimination lawsuits, he said. Such insurance is less common, Fink said, for wage and hour claims.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events