Sarah Cantrell (not her real name) quit her job as a custodial supervisor for an Iowa school district in June.  She had worked there for nearly seven years and had held that position for about three years.  Ms. Cantrell quit her job because she felt she was being sexually harassed.

            It’s more or less understood by everyone that if you’re sexually harassed in the workplace, it can cause discomfort and intimidation.  In Iowa, you can get unemployment benefits even if you quit your job, as long as you quit “with good cause attributable to the employer”—for example, if your workplace environment is intolerable, unlawful, or detrimental.  It seems like being the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace would be a hole-in-one for getting unemployment benefits!  It just so happened that Ms. Cantrell applied for them.

            Ms. Cantrell was denied the benefits.  She appealed, and Administrative Law Judge Julie Elder issued a decision affirming the denial.  How did it turn out this way?  It turned out the case wasn’t as cut-and-dry as you might expect.  Here are the instances of sexual harassment involved in this case:

  • Once, in 2010, Ms. Cantrell’s Director of Operations said to her about some electrical outlets “Now you’ll give me mouth to mouth if this knocks me down?”
  • In March of this year, Ms. Cantrell texted the same man to let him know that a meeting was going to be cancelled.  He replied “Damn, I was going to look at your butt tonight.”
  • The man, a volunteer fireman, often referred to his “hose” in a manner that offended Ms. Cantrell.
  • This summer, when the man entered the office where Ms. Cantrell was sitting at her desk, he said, “Is that why you want extra summer help?  So you can sit at your desk all day?”

            These examples don’t show Ms. Cantrell’s Director in a good light.  But inappropriate behavior on its own doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of being detrimental or intolerable behavior.  Judge noted as well that she couldn’t really consider the 2010 incident since it had occurred so long ago, and that even the March incident was quite a while ago.  But the most damning aspect of Ms. Cantrell’s claim was the fact that she didn’t document any of these issues.

"Time makes a difference in unemployment cases based on harrassment. If you have three instances of what could be harrassment over a ten year period the reasons for quitting seem suspect. And then there is the notion of not reporting the matter up the chain of command. Where is the evidence that these instances of alleged harrassment were reported to the supervisor or to HR? Without that evidence the complaint rings hollow. The documentation to which this decision refers, should be by way of reports to HR." Steve Lombardi, Attorney

            Documenting is an important aspect of any case.  But particularly in an unemployment case, where you are more or less on your own for a period of time before you even consider getting a lawyer, it’s important to make notes of the things that happen to you that you think you might need in a future legal claim.  Ms. Cantrell was clearly genuinely upset, and her co-worker didn’t behave terribly admirably.  But that wasn’t enough, because she didn’t write things down.

            Need some help with your unemployment case?  I like to say to my clients, "Help me to help you."  If we can help you, call the Lombardi Law Firm to speak with attorneys Steve Lombardi and Katrina Schaefer. We can be reached at 515-222-1110 or by emailing us at [email protected] and [email protected] We look forward to your call.


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