Internal Watchdog Report Reveals Ongoing Sexual Harassment in U.S. Department of Justice

As employers contend with issues of sexual harassment and other forms of New York sex discrimination in the workplace, parts of the federal government seem to be recognizing their own shortcomings in these areas. Antidiscrimination statutes like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 apply to private employers all over the country, while New York City’s antidiscrimination statutes provide additional protections to workers within the city. Federal agencies, in their capacity as employers, are generally bound by Title VII, amd they are also subject to internal watchdogs established by the Inspector General Act (IGA) of 1978. Last year, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a report harshly criticizing how the department has handled many cases involving alleged sexual harassment.

Under federal law, sexual harassment constitutes sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. Employees of private businesses must file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an independent agency in the Executive Branch of the federal government, in order to assert a claim under Title VII. Employees of certain federal agencies can report sexual harassment and other alleged violations to their agency’s OIG, which has authority under §§ 2 and 6 of the IGA to investigate complaints and refer matters for further enforcement action.

Section 12(2) of the IGA identifies the federal agencies that must establish and maintain OIGs. The list includes the DOJ and all other Cabinet departments, as well as agencies like “the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, [and] the General Services Administration.” Employees of these agencies are authorized by § 7(a) to make “complaints [to the OIG]…concerning the possible existence of an activity constituting a violation of law, rules, or regulations.” Section 7(b) requires OIGs to maintain the confidentiality of complainants whenever possible, and § 7(c) prohibits agency supervisors from retaliating against employees who make complaints.

The report by the DOJ’s OIG, issued in May 2017, originated from a 2015 complaint alleging that a division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office had failed to discipline one of its attorneys for sexual misconduct in accordance with its own internal policies and procedures. The OIG’s initial investigation substantiated this claim, and found additional problems with how the division handled sexual harassment complaints. It found that the division received eleven complaints of sexual harassment between fiscal years 2011 and the first half of fiscal year 2016. It then “identified significant weaknesses in…tracking, reporting, and investigating” these complaints, “as well as inconsistencies among penalties imposed for substantiated allegations.”

While the OIG’s report focused on the U.S. Attorney’s Office, it also noted problems that it had identified in the handling of sexual harassment complaints by other parts of the DOJ. These included “systemic issues with…disciplinary and security processes” in the U.S. Marshals Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and other agencies. It made several recommendations for improvements, which were largely reflected in new directives issued by the DOJ in May 2018.

The knowledgeable and experienced employment lawyers at Phillips & Associates represent New York City employees, former employees, and job seekers. We advocate for our clients’ rights in claims for sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and other unlawful workplace practices. Please contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431 to schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can assist you.

More Blog Posts:

How a Group of Women in New York Coined the Term “Sexual Harassment” Just Over 40 Years Ago, New York Employment Attorney Blog, September 4, 2018

Investigation Reveals Extent of Sexual Harassment Against Hotel Maintenance Workers in New York City and Nationwide, New York Employment Attorney Blog, August 13, 2018

Surge in Sexual Harassment Complaints Since Late 2017 Could Cause Greater Backlog at EEOC, New York Employment Attorney Blog, August 10, 2018


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