Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and…Koko the Sign Language Gorilla?

Koko the Gorilla, who died recently at the age of 46, reportedly could use 1,000 sign language words correctly and understood perhaps 1,000 more.  Unfortunately, some of her words may have stirred up some true monkey business in the realm of sexual harassment.

In 2005, two of Koko’s caretakers filed a million dollar lawsuit for sexual harassment and wrongful termination against Koko’s primary handler, Dr. Francine Patterson, and the Gorilla Foundation of which Patterson was president.  According to the lawsuit, Patterson told the two female caretakers to bare their breasts in front of Koko as a sort of bonding ritual that she herself had followed with Koko for years.  Patterson allegedly interpreted certain of the gorilla’s hand movements as demands to see women’s exposed breasts and told the two handlers that if they did not comply with Koko’s requests, their employment would be impacted.

Monkey See But Handlers Won’t Do

The two caretakers refused to do as Patterson directed and eventually were both terminated from their jobs, prompting them to sue. A third employee joined the suit claiming that her promised research job was nothing more than cleaning cages and mopping floors in an unpleasant and unsanitary environment.  The lawsuit also alleged that various safety violations and unpaid overtime.

Patterson and the Foundation defended, claiming that Patterson never translated Koko’s gestures as sexual advances or that anything Patterson said related to sex in any way.  Koko declined to comment but it can be assumed that she considered the matter as nothing more than the ordinary “gibbon take” among consenting primates.

The claim was initially thrown out by the court as insufficient to state a proper claim.  After the claimants threatened to re-file the claim with greater detail, the parties settled the case, perhaps because Patterson and the Foundation wished to avoid further exposure or a trip to the ape-peals court.  The terms of the settlement were never announced.

Bottom Line

What do we learn from this unusual case?

First, no lawsuit is ever too strange for our legal system.

Second, some jobs require that employees occasionally endure behaviors that might otherwise be considered offensive or inappropriate in the workplace.  For example, long term care workers often encounter patients or residents who are not able (or willing) to refrain from offensive statements. Art gallery and museum workers may be exposed to paintings of nude people or peculiar behavior, and legal assistants may have to transcribe a lawyer’s report of the latest sordid harassment claim.

In any such instance, employers should explain these possibilities up front, secure the applicant’s or employee’s acknowledgment that they understand their unique circumstances and offer assurances that efforts will be made to address any concerns that might eventually arise from working in such environments.

Finally, where employees are required to deal with possibly offensive behavior, check in with them on a regular basis (and document it) to make sure that the workers are still comfortable in the environment.

Without these precautions, you could find yourself defending a lawsuit that is so weird it drives you bananas.