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The legal history of sexual harassment in N.H. is shorter than you may think

  • Diane Panzieri sits at her home in Auburn earlier this month. In 1992, Panzieri became the first person the state’s Commission for Human Rights found to have been a victim of sexual harassment, a term that hadn’t even existed before 1975. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Diane Panzieri sits for a portrait at her home in Auburn on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Sunday, December 31, 2017

In 1986, Diane Panzieri landed what should have been a great job as an office manager at an Auburn insurance adjustment firm. It paid well, she enjoyed the work, and she could even walk to the office from home.

She quit within five months.

“I went through hell, from day one,” she said.

Her boss, Richard Shackelton, constantly commented on her body, her clothes, her perfume. He tried to look up her skirt. He put his face in her neck, and touched her buttocks. When she complained, she was reminded of who signed her paychecks.

Fed up, Panzieri called the state’s Commission for Human Rights. She filed a complaint for sexual harassment and resigned her post.

The proceedings would last years. Shackelton accused Panzieri of a slew of misdeeds in order to cast doubt on her account. But five former employees corroborated Panzieri’s story. The clincher, she thinks, is when Shackelton’s own wife testified. According to a Commission for Human Rights ruling, the woman said she’d asked her husband to tamp down on his sexual banter to help him be more “business-like.”

Five years after she first called the agency, in 1992, the Commission for Human Rights finally decided in Panzieri’s favor, ruling that what Shackelton had done constituted sexual harassment. In a 2-1 judgment, they awarded her $19,420 in lost wages.

“It took so long. But I did it. I stuck to my guns,” Panzieri said.

Panzieri’s victory may also have been a milestone for sexual harassment redress in New Hampshire. She is, at least on record, the first person that commissioners at the Commission for Human Rights found to have been a victim of sexual harassment, a term that hadn’t even existed before 1975.

It’s likely women before Panzieri found some sort of justice at the agency. Complaints filed with the Commission for Human Rights go to an investigator first, who is tasked with determining whether or not there was probable cause that harassment occurred. Those accused often settle with the complainant after probable cause is found, prior to the case reaching a hearing before the commissioners. Those settlement records aren’t available.

The state’s court system said it couldn’t track down the first legal claims of sexual harassment, which fall under RSA 354-A.

Whether or not Panzieri was technically the first woman to succeed in filing a sexual harassment claim in New Hampshire, her story dovetails with several major milestones in legal redress for sexual harassment victims.

In 1986, the year she began working for Shackelton’s of New Hampshire Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that sexual harassment was an illegal form of sex discrimination, whether or not the employee who was harassed suffered an economic harm.

In 1991, when Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee nearly derailed Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court and brought sexual harassment into the national conversation, a local news station came to interview Panzieri. That same year, President George H.W. Bush signed the Civil Rights Act of 1991 – he had vetoed an earlier iteration – which gave victims of discrimination the right to a jury trial, along with compensatory and punitive damages.

The new federal law would pave the way for victims of sexual harassment to finally receive substantial financial awards from juries. In New Hampshire, the Commission for Human Rights has historically awarded modest sums. Panzieri estimated she’d spent three times what she received in attorney’s fees, and the latest judgment in favor of a sexual harassment victim at the agency, in 2016, was for just $8,000 in lost pay and $15,000 in compensatory damages.

New Hampshire law requires sexual harassment victims first go to the commission before they can take their case before a jury. At first, victims who wanted to sue had to take their case to federal court. They wouldn’t get the right to file suit in superior court – a less intimidating venue – until 2000.

For Nancy Richards-Stower, a former commissioner at the Commission for Human Rights and a veteran civil rights attorney, the state statute change has always been a double-edged sword. It meant complainants could remove their case from the Commission and bring it to superior court – but so could respondents.

Court brings the possibility of a greater payout. But it’s also more complicated and more expensive from the outset – there are no filing fees at the Commission, and you don’t need a lawyer. An employer can intimidate a complainant by taking the case to court, especially if they can’t afford an attorney. Richards-Stower has lobbied the state Legislature to amend the law so complainants would get to choose the venue – so far to no avail.

Other things remain stacked in favor of harassers, especially if they’re powerful within their organizations. Richards-Stower thinks that’s mostly because legally-binding non-disclosure agreements that keep victims silent – which she believes should not be allowed – make it possible for employers to shield serial aggressors.

“It’s a function of a business decision. And that business decision has been allowed because of non-disclosure agreements. And lawyers advise their clients to agree to them,” she said.

The internet, too, has been unkind to victims of workplace discrimination. Media coverage of cases remain available in perpetuity with a simple Google search, and Richards-Stower said her clients often worry – with reason – about being screened out by potential employers if their cases receive press.

But there are signs of change.

“I think what’s changed is increasingly, people just don’t – especially younger people on the juries – don’t tolerate it. They don’t like people being picked on, or belittled, or hit on,” said Chuck Douglas, a former state Supreme Court justice and practicing employment attorney in Concord.

Since the Harvey Weinstein stories and #MeToo movement have flooded the news, Richards-Stower said she’d noticed an interesting uptick in calls – from men accused of sexual harassment.

She doesn’t take their cases. As a general rule, she only represents victims. But she thinks it suggests women are speaking up within the workplace.

“What’s different today is there is more education required of an employer. There are policies that are required,” she said. “And candidly, the political support for women exists now where it didn’t use to be.”

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)