It should go without saying that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination. Yet Christopher, who had to receive health care services on a near-weekly basis from Group Health, was subjected to sexually explicit comments, sexual advances, and unwanted touching from a patient access representative, T.T., every time he visited the clinic. T.T. made comments such as “You have a nice ass, and I want to squeeze it”; told him how “hot” he made her; invited him to lunch so she could demonstrate a “real blowjob” on a hot dog; and pressed herself against him several times. But a trial court ruled that this conduct did not violate the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD).
Christopher appealed this ruling to the Washington State Court of Appeals. Legal Voice filed a “friend of the court” brief urging the Washington Court of Appeals to rule that harassment is a form of discrimination under the WLAD and to clarify the standard for proving a claim of hostile environment harassment in public accommodations.
We argued in our brief that harassment has been recognized for years as a form of discrimination, and that when a person is subjected to harassing conduct based on their sex, or their race, or any other protected characteristic, it affects the person’s ability to access the public accommodation, even without a denial of service.
Indeed, particularly in the health care context, harassment and discrimination can impair access to care, as well as itself create negative health impacts. Harassment, or the fear of harassment, can discourage people from seeking care. And patients already are limited in their choice, as most health insurance covers care limited to a network of providers. Christopher, for example, could not simply “shop” elsewhere for the health care services he needed – nor should the law require him to do so.
The Court’s ruling will impact not only the public’s access to health care free from discrimination, but also people’s ability to access other public accommodations free from harassment, such as parks, community centers, swimming pools, theaters, restaurants, and stores.
Legal Voice was joined on the brief by the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law & Equality; Lindsay Halm of Schroeter Goldmark & Bender served as cooperating attorney.