Sexual Harassment and Sexually Hostile Work Environment Claims in Tennessee – General Overview

Posted on Oct 3 2017 5:25PM by Attorney, Jason A. Lee

Sexual Harassment and Sexually Hostile Work Environment claims are both recognized in Tennessee under state law and federal Law (pursuant to Title VII).  These are very significant claims often involving the harassment of a female by a male supervisor or co-worker.  The standards for an employer’s liability are different under each of those scenarios (this will be discussed in a subsequent blog post on this topic).  It is important to note that Tennessee courts often look to federal law for guidance on interpretation of Tennessee’s own discrimination statutes, because they are so similar.

A sexual harassment “quid pro quo” claim in Tennessee is established using the following elements to support the cause of action:


(1) that the employee was a member of a protected class; (2) that the employee was subjected to unwelcome sexual harassment in the form of sexual advances or requests for sexual favors; (3) that the harassment complained of was based on sex; (4) that the employee's submission to the unwelcome advances was an express or implied condition for receiving job benefits or that the employee's refusal to submit to the supervisor's demands resulted in a tangible job detriment; and (5) the existence of respondeat superior liability.

Sanders v. Lanier, 968 S.W.2d 787, 789 (Tenn. 1998).  This type of claim mainly focuses on unwanted sexual advances or requests for sexual favors.  Believe it or not, these situations are much more common than you would think.  Federal law has similar protections against this type of action in the workplace.

Another type of claim under Tennessee law is a sexually hostile work environment claim.  This is based on sexual harassment of an employee based on their sex.  Often, this could involve crude sexual jokes, sexual comments, inappropriate touching or grabbing and other similar conduct – most often directed at women.  Tennessee courts have provided the following as the elements required for this type of case in Tennessee:


To prevail on a hostile work environment claim in a sexual harassment case, an employee must assert and prove that (1) the employee is a member of a protected class; (2) the employee was subjected to unwelcomed sexual harassment; (3) the harassment occurred because of the employee's gender; (4) the harassment affected a “term, condition, or privilege” of employment; and (5) the employer knew, or should have known of the harassment and failed to respond with prompt and appropriate corrective action.

Campbell v. Florida Steel Corp., 919 S.W.2d 26, 31 (Tenn. 1996).  Generally, if a supervisor is the one who is acting, the employer will be automatically responsible for their actions (although the employer has some defenses available that will be discussed in another post).  If co-workers are involved in creating the sexually hostile work environment, then liability of the employer is based on the knowledge of the employer and their reaction to the sexual harassment and steps they took to prevent the sexual harassment.  Employers cannot simply stick their heads in the sand when there is rampant sexual harassment going on at their place of business.

Damages for sexual harassment claims in Tennessee can be very significant.  These types of claims can also support a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress if the actions are bad enough.  In order to support a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held the following elements are required:


The elements of an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim are that the defendant's conduct was (1) intentional or reckless, (2) so outrageous that it is not tolerated by civilized society, and (3) resulted in serious mental injury to the plaintiff. Regarding the first element, the law is clear in Tennessee and elsewhere that either intentional or reckless conduct on the part of the defendant will suffice to establish intentional infliction of emotional distress.


Rogers v. Louisville Land Company et al, 367 S.W.3d 196, 205 (Tenn. 2012).  If you have a claim as an employee you need an experienced attorney to help you early in the situation. There are strict statutes of limitation governing the time frame within which a claim must be made.  If you are defending a claim as an employer, you need to get counsel involved early so that the situation is handled promptly and appropriately under the law.


Follow me on Twitter at @jasonalee for updates from the Tennessee Defense Litigation blog.

TAGS: Torts, Employment Law, Sexual Harassment, Miscellaneous
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Jason A. Lee is a Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC. He practices in all areas of defense litigation inside and outside of Tennessee.

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Tennessee Defense Litigation Blog
Jason A. Lee, Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC
611 Commerce Street, Suite 2603
Nashville, TN 37203
Phone: 615-540-1004
E-mail: jlee@burrowlee.com