Even when an employer takes prompt remedial action to defeat a sexual harassment claim, it may still be liable for retaliation. A NH employer was reminded of this recently in Rand v. Town of Exeter (11-CV-55-PB) (10/2/13).
Brenda Rand worked as a solid waste transfer operator for the Town’s Highway Department. Rand alleged that a coworker sexually assaulted her one morning at the transfer station when both were alone. Rand confided in a coworker 5 days after the incident and then reported it to the HR Director and her supervisors.
To prove sexual harassment by a coworker, an employee must show that the employer knew or should have known of the harassment yet failed to take prompt remedial action.
On a motion for summary judgment filed by the employer, the federal trial court found that the Town had taken prompt and remedial action when it learned of Rand’s complaint. As the Court explained, the company HR Director conducted an investigation into the allegations, prohibited the alleged harasser from going to Rand’s worksite during the investigation, and had interviewed 3 of the witnesses within 3 days of learning of the complaint and had a report prepared 5 days after the final interview. The Town informed Rand of the investigation outcome two weeks later.
The Court noted that while Rand disagreed with the Town’s internal investigation outcome, the issue as to employer liability is whether the employer is negligent in allowing the harassment to occur and whether the employer took reasonable steps to respond. Here, the Town had an anti-discrimination policy, no reason to anticipate the alleged assault, and took prompt and effective action to respond to and investigate Rand’s complaint. As a result of the steps taken by the employer, the federal Title VII and state harassment claims were dismissed.
As this case shows, anti-discrimination policies and effective internal investigations play important roles in protecting companies from workplace liability. Taking complaints seriously, dealing with them objectively and promptly, and taking appropriate remedial measures, if necessary, following the investigation may shield employers from claims.
Unfortunately for this employer, the case is not done. While the harassment claims were dismissed, the Court allowed Rand’s retaliation claims to continue. Rand had produced sufficient evidence to support her complaint, including negative performance reviews and reprimands after her complaint and evidence employees were told to avoid her. Additionally, the Town placed Rand on administrative leave and refused to turn over her personnel file shortly after Rand filed an EEOC complaint. As the Court explained, motive and intent are better suited for the jury, and a trial has been scheduled for February 2014.
With retaliation at the top of the list of discrimination filings, employers must take heed. An employee may lose on the underlying discrimination claim and still be successful on the retaliation claim for conduct occurring after the complaint. Employers should have strong policies against retaliation and should train all supervisors and employees on this prohibited conduct. Do not learn this lesson the hard way.