Articles Posted in Harassment

Investigating complaints of inappropriate workplace conduct is a difficult challenge for any number of reasons. But conducting an immediate and thorough investigation is critical to both preventing lawsuits and to avoiding liability should a lawsuit arise. Human-resource professionals often ask for tips in handling this challenge. Here are three. male female sign

First, don’t be shy. An investigation of workplace harassment is not the time to be timid. Ask the tough questions and be direct. Don’t mince words or dance around the questions. Consider writing out the questions that you need answers to and actually check them off your list. If you don’t ask a straight question, you’ll never get a straight answer.

Second, don’t decide anything in advance. This is important because, if you’ve already made your mind up before you ask the question, you’ve already failed as an investigator. In order to get the information that you need, you must truly listen. And the interviewee will know if you’re not listening. So keep an open mind and don’t jump to conclusions.

Third, remember that there may be more than one version of the “truth.” It’s rare that I am presented with a complaining witness who I think is actually “lying.” It’s far, far more common that the complainant misunderstood the events or misinterpreted the meaning. And, frequently, for one reason or another, the complainant has repeated the story so many times in his or head that the story has become the truth. In other words, the complainant truly believes that the events occurred the way that he or she is describing them.

There is a tremendous body of social-science research about this third item. Eye-witness accounts can be, well, dead wrong. If you think you’re the exception, or, if you just want to see how differently people can see the same event, you may want to take a look at the “selective attention test” by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris.  Watch the video and see how many passes you count and then compare your answer to others . . . and then consider how certain you should be about the observations of the employees you’re interviewing.

The employment-discrimination laws have been expanding since their creation.  And, most of the time, that’s a good thing.  But there are times when I wonder, “Have we gone too far?”  There was the bullying craze a few years ago, when there was a push to make bullying in the workplace unlawful.  Although no decent employer (or human being) thinks that bullying is an endorsable attribute, I am of the opinion that it cannot be regulated via statute.  unpaid intern

And there are the recent cases that have found that individuals who are in the country unlawfully have standing to sue under the wage-payment laws.  I fall on the side of the employees on this one, in case you are wondering.

I defended a harassment case once that was brought by the former employee and her company, which had done business with the employer and which she claimed was subject to retaliation in violation of Title VII.  I tried to explain to my opponent that Title VII-an employment law-applies only to employees.  And, although the statute defines employees very, very broadly, I felt pretty confident that entities cannot be “employed” in this sense of the word.  Thankfully, my prediction proved true in that case and the court dismissed the claims brought on behalf of the company.

But it seems not to be an entirely settled question.  A New York judge ruled last week that an unpaid intern was not an “employee” for the purposes of that State’s anti-discrimination law and, therefore, could not bring a claim of sexual harassment.  According to USA Today, Oregon is the only state in the country to extend sexual-harassment protection to unpaid interns. 

Here’s my entirely unsolicited and subjective opinion on the question.  It seems to me that there are likely other remedies available to an intern who truly has been harassed.  And not just legal remedies, but the remedy that involves you heading for the door and finding somewhere else to give your valuable time to without compensation.

Is it a shame?  Yes, most definitely.  Is it a disgrace to the perpetrator and the employer who continues to employ him?  Absolutely.  But, the lucky break about being an intern is that the point of the experience is to learn, not to support yourself or your family.  And it seems like there are plenty of lessons to be learned in this scenario.  But that does not necessarily mean that there is a lawsuit to be had, either-at least not under the employment-discrimination statutes. 

Being a jerk is a legal defense, so to speak.  An “equal opportunity jerk” is a boss who treats everyone badly, regardless of race, religion, gender, etc.  If his subordinates sue, alleging an unlawful hostile environment, they’ll likely have trouble establishing that the jerk was more of a jerk to one particular group of employees based on a protected characteristic. 

It is a defense that defense lawyers prefer to not to have to invoke. Nevertheless, when the facts are there, even an unattractive defense can be a winner. Take, for example, the Third Circuit’s decision in Clayton v. City of Atlantic City. 

people backstabberThe plaintiff was a police officer in the Atlantic City Police Department, who alleged that she was subject to the sexual advances of a senior officer.  This went on for a number of years until, eventually, she came under his direct supervision. 

As her supervisor, she alleged, he gave her a less desirable work schedule and singled her out for various minor policy violations.  Another senior officer also disciplined her and reprimanded the plaintiff for other policy violations, which the plaintiff alleged were common practice throughout the Police Department, such as leaving the city limits without permission for lunch and for rolling her eyes during roll call.  She was eventually transferred to a different unit, which resulted in a pay decrease.

The plaintiff alleged that she was transferred because of her gender.  But she also testified to what she described as a “revenge management” culture in the department.  That culture, as she described it, meant that if you were not liked by a superior, regardless of gender, it was common for the superior to attempt to undermine your career.

It was this “culture of revenge” that resulted in the dismissal of the plaintiff’s suit.  The court reasoned that an attitude of “revenge” is not unlawful, provided it is equally applied without regard to race, religion, gender, etc.  Here, there had not been gender discrimination because males and females alike were subject to the punishments of dissatisfied supervisors.

Although this case makes an excellent teaching example, it’s not exactly one I would recommend as “inspirational.”  Equal opportunity jerks may not be in violation of the anti-discrimination laws, but, boy, they sure do get sued a lot.

Clayton v. City of Atlantic City, No. 12-4273 (3d Cir. Sept. 12, 2013).

The U.S. Supreme Court issued two important employment-law decisions this week and, surprising to many of us, both came out in favor of employers. Both cases will have significant impact on employment lawsuits but one of the two is of of particular interest to me because it has been an issue I’ve faced in prior cases of my own.

In Vance v. Ball State University, the Supreme Court was asked to decide what it means to be an employee’s “supervisor” for purposes of Title VII.  In short, the Court held that an individual can be considered to be a supervisor only if he or she has been empowered by the employer to take “tangible employment action” against the employee who claims to have been harassed. 

And what, exactly, is a “tangible employment action,” you ask?  Basically, it means the power to effectuate significant change in the victim’s employment status.  So the power to hire, fire, demote, etc., is the power to effectuate a tangible employment action.  If the individual does not have the authority to fire, transfer, or demote the victim, then the individual is not considered to be the victim’s supervisor.

Now, why does this matter?  In harassment cases, the law provides for an affirmative defense in certain cases.  By “affirmative defense,” I mean that, even if harassment did occur, the employer still will not be held liable if the defense is found to apply.  Which means that the affirmative defense is absolutely critical for an employer facing a harassment claim.

But the defense does have its limits. And one of them is when a supervisor is the alleged harasser.  If the employee was harassed by a supervisor and the harassment resulted in a tangible employment action, then the defense is not available.  So, in any case involving allegations of unlawful harassment, the employer will want to show that the alleged harasser was not the victim’s supervisor.

And that’s why the definition of a “supervisor” is so important. Prior to the Vance decision, the employee is free to argue that the individual was his or her supervisor based on any number of factors.  I had a case in which the plaintiff-employee claimed that the alleged harasser was her supervisor.  The employer disputed this, contending that the individual did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, or otherwise take any tangible employment action against the employee.  In response, the employee argued that the individual trained the employee.

Without the precedent to support our argument on what defines a supervisor, we were left only with “common-sense” arguments.  And, maybe it’s just me but “common sense” doesn’t get me very far with the court on most days.  Generally speaking, judges prefer to see a legal citation at the end of the sentence instead of a footnote that says, “Well, obviously.”

So although I do think that the Court’s opinion is one that derives a great deal of its holding from common sense, I am no less excited about it. 

Harassment knows no boundaries. Unfortunately, it occurs in workplaces of any shape and size and can be effectuated by persons in positions of every variety and in every industry. Even a quick look at the story reported in today’s News Journal makes this very clear.

According to the story, a partner at a prestigious law firm in Indianapolis became seemingly obsessed with a female intern, who was later hired as an associate.  The associate filed suit based on the partner’s conduct, which, if to be believed, is outrageous, bordering on horrifying.

Some of the conduct alleged includes that the partner sent an email to the law firm, pretending to be the firm’s managing partner, claiming that the associate had acted in pornographic movies and suggesting that she had been awarded her job at the firm as a result of performing sexual favors.  The email also included a video clip of a young woman dancing topless-the video was not the female associate.  The email was one incident in a string of similar aggressions by the partner. 

As a result of the conduct, the Indiana Supreme Court suspended the partner’s law license for at least three years.

If true, this story is a sad example of the equal-opportunity nature of harassment in the workplace.

Sexual harassment, retaliation, and constructive discharge. The trifecta of employment-discrimination claims. And all three were the subject of a recent decision from the 3d Circuit. The decision contains lots of interesting discussion points but I’ll limit myself to just one for the purposes of this post.

The plaintiff-employee contended that she resigned because her boss called her a “bitch” during a meeting. The court explained that, to establish a constructive discharge, the employee must show that “the employer knowingly permitted conditions of discrimination in employment so intolerable that a reasonable person subject to them would resign.” In determining whether the employee was forced to resign, the court looks to several factors, including whether she was threatened with discharge, encouraged to resign, demoted, subject to reduced pay, involuntarily transferred to a less desirable position, subject to a change in job responsibilities, or given poor performance evaluations.

So is being called a “bitch” at a meeting so bad that it could force an employee to quit?

You may be surprised to learn that the 3d Circuit did not answer this question in the negative. Nor did it find that this single incident was sufficient to constitute a constructive discharge.

Instead, it sent the question back to the trial court. The trial court had dismissed the claim based only on its dismissal of her sexual-harassment claim. Although the district court was correct when it determined that there cannot be a constructive discharge unless there was conduct over and above a hostile work environment. The district court held that, since there was no hostile work environment, there could not be a constructive-discharge claim. Although that theory is correct, the 3d Circuit explained, the district court had erroneously found that there was no hostile environment. Thus, the 3d Circuit directed the trial court to reevaluate the constructive-discharge claim after it had taken a second look at the hostile-environment claim.

Mandel v. M&Q Packaging Corp., No. 11-3193 (3d Cir. Jan. 14, 2013).

The EEOC has enjoyed several victories in recent months. For example, the EEOC was granted summary judgment in a hostile-environment claim filed on behalf of a class of black construction workers. Even more recently, the EEOC was awarded summary judgment in an age-discrimination lawsuit against the City of Baltimore. But things haven’t been all peaches and cream for the EEOC.

In EEOC v. McPherson Cos., Inc., a federal district court in Alabama granted summary judgment to the defendant-employer in a sexual-harassment lawsuit brought by the EEOC on behalf of an unnamed male employee. The employee worked in a warehouse with an all-male workforce.

The EEOC alleged that, after being subject to a constant barrage of “ugly talk,” the employee complained to his supervisor about the allegedly hostile work environment. About a year later, the employee confronted his co-workers, who apologized and, thereafter, stopped directing rude comments his way. About a year after that, the employee complained to HR, which investigated the complaint, resulting in discipline for several workers and two supervisors. After this last complaint, the comments ceased.

The court held that the EEOC had failed to establish the existence of an unlawful hostile environment because it had not shown that the rude comments and “ugly talk” were of a sexual nature or that they were made “because of” the employee’s gender.

The EEOC argued that the harassment was because of his gender and, specifically, because of his effeminate behavior. This can be a valid cause of action–when a male employee is treated badly because he acts “too girly.” But, here, despite the EEOC’s argument, the testimony of the employee himself contradicted this argument. Thus, the court dismissed the gender-discrimination and sexual-harassment claims.

The court also dismissed the EEOC’s retaliation claim. The employee was terminated, along with 11 other employees, as part of a reduction-in-force 3 months after his complaint to HR. The court expressed that it was “hard to believe” that the EEOC “is seriously arguing that the entire RIF process was a subterfuge for fraud designed for the sole purpose of providing cover for retaliation.”

EEOC v. McPherson Cos., Inc., No. 10-cv-2627 (N.D. Ala. Nov. 14, 2012).

I’ve posted more than my share of stories involving allegations by employees that they were terminated because they were “too sexy” for the job. For example, there was the female banker who sued Citigroup, alleging that she was terminated for being “too sexy for her job.” Then there was the data-entry employee who was terminated from her job in a lingerie warehouse for, she alleged, wearing what her employer considered to be clothing that was “too sexy.”

Usually, this type of allegation involves at least some level of grandiose delusion and almost always involves the employee’s belief that everyone hates her for being so darn good looking. But today’s post goes much closer to the realm of the legitimate. Because this post involves an actual court decision. On December 21, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled that there was no unlawful discrimination where a dentist terminated his dental assistant of 10 years after his wife became jealous.

For his part, the dentist admitted that the assistant was a good employee and wasn’t fired for poor performance. Instead, he claimed that her tight clothing was too distracting and felt that he wouldn’t be able to resist her charms if she remained in his employ any longer, reports CNN.

In other words, the ruling makes clear that “being irresistible” will not serve as the basis for a gender-discrimination or sexual-harassment claim.

Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS, P.C., No. 11-857 (PDF).

The discoverability of social-media evidence is far from a settled question. Many of the few cases that have addressed the question are employment claims. And the latest such decision is no exception. In EEOC v. Original Honeybaked Ham Company of Georgia, Inc., No. 11-02560-MSK_MEH (D. Col. Nov. 7, 2012), the Colorado District Court granted an employer’s motion to compel and required the employee-class members to turn over their log-in and passwords to a special master, who would make an initial determination of discoverability.

The EEOC filed suit on behalf of approximately 20 female employees, who, the EEOC alleged, had been subject to unlawful sexual harassment and retaliation by their former employer. The defendant-employer sought to compel the class members to produce unredacted versions of their social-media accounts.

The court first reminded the parties that it was determining what was discoverable–not what would be admissible at trial. The court next acknowledged that discovery of social-media information is a “thorny and novel” area of the law. Then the court reached its first substantive conclusion:

The fact that [information] exists in cyberspace on an electronic device is a logistical and, perhaps, financial problem, but not a circumstance that removes the information from accessibility by a party opponent in litigation.

Based on that conclusion as its starting point, the court then turned to the question at hand. First, the court concluded that the evidence was discoverable. This finding was based on postings by one of the former employees to her Facebook page. In those posts, the employee discussed her financial expectations in the lawsuit; sexually amorous communications with other class members, and post-termination employment and income, to name a few. Other class members posted comments to this individual’s Facebook page.

The court then discussed the privacy interests of the class members and concluded that a process was needed to ensure that only relevant, discoverable information would be gathered. To do this, the court would appoint a forensic expert a special master. The court ordered the employees to provide “directly and confidentially to the special master,” all “necessary information to access any social media website” the employee had used during the relevant time period.

The parties are then to submit a joint questionnaire for the special master to use in gathering the information. The special master would then provide the court with a hard copy of all of the information yielded by the process and the court would conduct an in camera review. The court would review the information for relevancy and turn over only what was relevant to the EEOC.

So, what’s to be learned from this decision? First, litigants are going to continue to bring this issue to the court. Second, parties are going to continue to post information relevant to their claims on social-media accounts. And, third, the courts are going to continue to struggle with the best way to order such information be produced.

In this case, with a class of claimants, there does seem to be some justification for the incredible use of the court’s resources and time but, more often than not, such justifications will not be present. And in those cases, what is the appropriate process for the collection, review, and production of social media? That remains to be seen.

Workplace anti-harassment training can be summarized with the title of this post. The fact that an employee laughs at an inappropriate joke is not a legal defense to a later claim at harassment. Nor is an employee’s failure to object to inappropriate workplace conduct. One employer recently learned this lesson the hard way.

In the case of EEOC v. Holmes & Holmes Industrial, Inc., the EEOC filed suit against a construction company on behalf of several Black employees, alleging hostile work environment claims. To succeed in a case alleging discrimination based on a hostile work environment, a plaintiff must prove that he or she was subject to (1) intentional discrimination, that was (2) severe or pervasive (3) and subjectively offensive to the plaintiff, and (4) that would be objectively offensive to a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position.

In support of its claims against Holmes & Holmes, EEOC asserts that the employee-claimants faced frequent, racially-charged comments from their managers and co-workers. EEOC also contended that supervisors frequently told racial jokes. In response, the employer argued that the employees engaged in similar conduct, frequently using racial slurs and terms.

Following the conclusion of discovery, the EEOC moved for summary judgment–and won! The Court granted partial summary judgment, concluding that the EEOC had proved elements one, two, and four of its claims. The Court’s decision noted that the EEOC had brought the “rare case where there is no dispute as to the pervasiveness of the conduct in question. No reasonable jury could find that a reasonable African-American would not be offended by this conduct.”

The Court rejected the employer’s argument that the employees’ participation in the misconduct indicated that it wasn’t offensive. Instead, the Court left for the jury the question of whether the employees were willing participants in the harassment.
The employer now finds itself in the unenviable position of going to trial in a case with very bad facts.

The lesson to be learned may be easier said than done but absolutely essential in preventing litigation and limiting liability–inappropriate or off-color jokes do not belong in the workplace, regardless of who you seems to find them funny. Really, there’s absolutely nothing funny about being suied for unlawful employment discrimination.

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