The 20 Most Scandalous Sexual-Harassment Cases of All Time

Updated: May 18, 2009

In the 1990s, the United States experienced the beginnings of a sexual- harassment revolution, as the number of cases increased, the average profile of victims changed and more laws were created in order to set new precedents and protect individuals against sexual predators. Since then, people from all backgrounds, cultures and social positions have found themselves involved in sexual-harassment cases, from presidents to church leaders to professional sports players.

It is important to be aware of sexual-harassment laws and precedents when dealing with this sensitive topic in the workplace. While some of the examples below are truly bizarre, they are representative of just how widespread, damaging and seemingly subjective some of these cases can be. Treat every complaint of sexual harassment with respect, but make sure to hear both sides of the story before making any conclusions. This list of the top 20 sexual-harassment cases of all time chronicles the misdeeds of heavyweights to truly bizarre, lesser-known exploits.

History-Making

The following cases helped set new precedents for future sexual-harassment cases by revising laws and introducing high-profile public figures.

  1. Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky: Perhaps the most famous presidential scandal in our nation's history, Bill Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky escalated far beyond the Oval Office. People all over the world watched as Clinton's presidency took a backseat to Ken Starr's interest as to whether or not Clinton had "sexual relations with that woman." Eventually, he became the second U.S. president to face an impeachment trial.
  2. Maxine Henderson and Gwen: In 1996, artist Maxine Henderson's impressionist portrait of a nude woman named Gwen rocked the small town of Murfreesboro, Tenn. A local assistant superintendent noticed the painting when it was hung on a wall in City Hall and was so offended by its alleged vulgarity that she "submitted a sexual harassment complaint to the city legal department." The city ultimately decided that the painting violated its own sexual-harassment policies and removed it. As a result, the artist sued the city "for violating her First Amendment rights." Henderson won the case in a U.S. District Court, under the pretenses that the painting hung in a public space and that the city's sexual-harassment policy was not detailed enough in its description of what constituted offensive material.
  3. Burlington Industries v. Kimberly Ellerth: When Kimberly Ellerth worked at Burlington Industries, she described her experiences as feeling "completely humiliated, embarrassed." An emotional and mental victim of sexual harassment by her supervisor, Ellerth never experienced a professional setback or reported the incidents to anyone at work, but according to Court TV, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled "that workers can still bring sexual harassment cases against employers even if the harassment is not reported and the employee's career is never hurt."
  4. Bill Clinton and Paula Jones: As governor of Arkansas, former president Bill Clinton allegedly "propositioned [Paula Jones] and exposed himself to her in a Little Rock hotel room," as reported by The Washington Post. Clinton never admitted to the sexual-harassment charges, despite the "brutal legal and public-relations battle" which ensued during the mid-1990s. The case was resurrected in the public eye during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and it is suggested that "allegations of perjury in [the Paula Jones] deposition are among the 11 possibly impeachable offenses that [Ken] Starr outlined in his ... report to Congress" in 1998.
  5. Kobe Bryant and the Colorado teenager: Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant started out as a young, record-breaking basketball star but quickly became entangled in a sexual assault case involving a Colorado teenager. Bryant did admit to cheating on his wife with the ski-resort employee but always denied the assault charges. Speculation over both Bryant's and the girl's testimony swirled around the courtroom for more than a year, but the case was ultimately dropped.
  6. Anita Hill v. Clarence Thomas: The conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was appointed to the court in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush, an action that "was instantly controversial" among the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), which "feared that Thomas's conservative stance on issues such as affirmative action would reverse the civil rights gains that Justice [Thurgood] Marshall had fought so hard to achieve." Women's groups also feared that Thomas would enact of anti-abortion legislation. All groups were ultimately shocked, however, when Clarence Thomas was accused of sexual harassment by a University of Oklahoma law professor named Anita Hill, who had once worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. Despite the allegations and investigation, Thomas was narrowly elected to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Hill was criticized for "character assassination."
  7. Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services: This groundbreaking case concerned a male oil-rig worker who spent periods of time on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. According to the case, Joseph Oncale was sodomized, threatened and humiliated by members of his crew. He reported the incidents, but no action was taken against the offenders, and Oncale "eventually quit — asking that his pink slip reflect that he 'voluntarily left due to sexual harassment and verbal abuse.'" Oncale filed a sexual-harassment suit against his crew, but the District Court of Eastern Louisiana held that as a male, Oncale was not protected against the 1964 legislation that prohibits sexual harassment. After the decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, however, it was reversed by a 1998 ruling that declared that sexual harassment also "applied to harassment in the workplace between members of the same sex."
  8. Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co.: Charlize Theron's starring role in the 2005 movie "North Country" tells the story of Lois Jenson, an employee at the Eveleth Taconite Co. mine in Minnesota during the 1970s and 1980s. At the mine, Jenson and other female employees were regularly harassed by male workers in a sexual, threatening manner. When Jenson first filed a complaint, "her car tires were slashed," and the company refused to pay for replacements. Through various hearings and trials that lasted well into the 1990s, Jenson and the other plaintiffs eventually settled with the Eveleth Taconite Co. for $3.5 million.

Bizarre

These truly bizarre sexual-harassment cases involve surprising offenders and atypical behavior that isn't normally discussed in a court room.

  1. S.A.C. Capital Advisors LCC: Major hedge-fund company S.A.C. Capital Advisors, founded in the early 1990s, is a "$14 billion dollar group of multi-strategy, multi-discipline" company. Yet in 2007, a scandal erupted that "stunned" Wall Street. Former S.A.C. Capital Advisors employee Andrew Tong filed suit against his supervisor Ping Jiang, whom is said to have forced Tong into taking female hormones and wearing female clothing in order "to eliminate the trader's aggressive male attitude so he could become a more obedient and detail-oriented player" at work, The New York Times reports. According to CNBC, S.A.C. Capital Advisors and Ping Jiang "vehemently deny the charges" and have reached no settlement with Tong.
  2. Koko the Gorilla: Koko the gorilla resides in comfort at Woodside, Calif.-based The Gorilla Foundation. Koko the gorilla has also been involved in a grotesque sexual-harassment case along with her handlers and their supervisor. Court TV reports that "former gorilla caretakers Nancy Alperin and Kendra Keller asked for more than $1 million in damages in their sexual discrimination and wrongful termination suit," which claims that the two women were forced to expose their breasts to the gorilla in order to indulge her fetish. Alperin and Keller maintained that they were fired when they refused to show their breasts to the gorilla, but they ultimately reached a settlement with the foundation.
  3. 6-Year Old Boy v. Brockton School District: How old do you have to be in order to stand accused of sexual harassment? In this particular case, involving the Brockton School District near Boston, you only have to be 6 years old. The elementary school boy was apparently found with "his hand inside the waistband of a girl's pants, touching the skin on her back," a violation of the school's sexual-harassment policy. According to the boy's mother, however, her son "doesn't even know what that word 'sexual' is. I don't see how I'm going to explain it to him," she added. Though the school wished to press charges, the district attorney's office deemed the boy too young to be prosecuted.
  4. Japanese Beard Pluckers: A female employee in Japan complained that her boss sexually harassed her when he "forced [her] to pluck his beard." According to the Legal Herald, the man "was fined $5,000 for his conduct."

Borderline Unbelievable

This list ranges from the absurd to the downright creepy. Read on for the details of these borderline unbelievable cases.

  1. Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy and the U.S. Army: In 2000, the Army's highest-ranking female officer was Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy an "oft-touted example of how the military has become more accommodating to women," according to CNN. Unfortunately for the Army's reputation, however, Kennedy insists that she was inappropriately "fondled" by a male officer. After reporting the incident, the male officer was "either promoted or given a much-coveted posting" instead of being punished, as Kennedy had hoped.
  2. Sen. Bob Packwood: Former Sen. Bob Packwood was a Republican from Oregon who, according to CBS News, was "reelected four consecutive times, and became chair of the powerful Finance Committee." During that time, however, Senator Packwood allegedly harassed 29 women through "groping, forced kissing and propositioning sex." The Senate's Ethics Committee was able to prove 17 of the 29 incidents, and Packwood resigned from his senatorial seat.
  3. Professor James Maas: The Center for Individual Rights asks, "was [this] famous Cornell professor a harasser or the victim of a witch hunt?" Immensely popular psychology professor James Maas was accused by former students in 1994 of sexual harassment. The case was initially brought forward to Cornell University authorities, who were not able to find any wrongdoing on the part of Professor Maas but decided to punish him anyway. The case was then taken to the courts of New York, which dismissed Maas's lawsuits against Cornell University.
  4. The Archdiocese of Boston: Roman Catholics weren't the only ones shocked when, in 2002, Boston-area priests and bishops were put on trial for ghastly accusations of sexually harassing children. Worldwide coverage was given to the scandals, which ultimately reached the Vatican and Pope John Paul II. According to The Boston Globe, the Archdiocese of Boston's "Cardinal Bernard F. Law announced a new 'zero-tolerance' policy on abusive clergy and agreed to turn over the names of all priests accused of sexual abuse to prosecutors. The Archdiocese of Boston began poring through its records and suspending abusive priests still in ministry." Hundreds of victims from all over the country began to reveal stories of sexual abuse, and the Catholic Church in America suddenly found itself under siege.
  5. Custom Companies Case: The Labor Law Center blog reports that top executives at the Custom Companies trucking company in Illinois "practiced sexual harassment of female employees," including inappropriate touching and sexual jokes. The women were also "required to entertain Custom Companies customers and potential clients at a number of strip clubs on Kingsbury Street in Chicago." After the case was examined, the women were granted more than $1 million dollars in damages.
  6. Deepak Chopra v. Joyce Weaver: Writer, doctor and spiritualist Deepak Chopra was involved in a set of hearings and a trial case instigated by former employee Joyce Weaver, who claimed "that she was wrongfully terminated because she had accused Chopra of sexual harassment." After only 10 minutes, a jury dismissed the case and found Chopra innocent. Chopra himself commented that "maybe it is my karma to dismantle the corruption in the San Diego judicial system," a system which he often referred to as "one of the most corrupt in the country," according to Rediff.com India Abroad.
  7. Isaiah Thomas v. Anucha Browne Sanders: This October 2007 case pitted New York Knicks head coach and general manager against New York Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders. Also known as The Smiling Assassin, Thomas was found guilty of sexually harassing Browne Sanders, and Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks play, was "ordered to pay her $6 million for creating a hostile workplace and $2.6 million for retaliation." The supervisor who fired Browne Sanders when she complained about the harassment was also fined $3 million.
  8. Dov Charney v. American Apparel Inc. Employees: Dov Charney, the CEO and founder of popular clothing chain American Apparel, is known in the fashion industry and beyond as an "unconventional," sexed-up boss, according to The New York Times. But he could only get away with sleeping with employees and showing up to meetings naked for so long. In 2005, three American Apparel employees filed suit against Charney for sexually harassing them at work by giving them sex toys, making derogatory comments and more. Many have negated the employees' claims, maintaining that the office culture at American Apparel is uniquely lax, and that the company's marketing strategies — designed to attract young — sexy buyers naturally leak into the workplace.

For most people, a sexual-harassment case can equal a nightmare, no matter which side they find themselves fighting on. Visit the Sexual Harassment Support or My Employment Lawyer Web sites if you need to confront someone about their behavior or if you feel as though you have been wrongfully accused.