CAUTION: IMPROPER HARASSMENT INVESTIGATIONS CAN RESULT IN A HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT CLAIM
An African-American plaintiff discharged for stealing confidential HR documents that he produced during an EEOC mediation session, presented sufficient evidence to support his Title VII and applicable state claim of racial harassment despite the employer’s eventual discharge of the harasser. (Collins v. Saurecia Interior Systems, Inc., September 3, 2010, Borman, P). The employee asserted that a co-worker directed racially derogatory comments at him including derogatory statements relating to the employee’s work ethic, and skin color. Comments also included the use of the “N” word, and referenced the employee “picking cotton.”
On July 27, 2007, the employee notified a manager about the co-worker’s “picking cotton” statement, and at a meeting on July 31, 2007, also informed him of the co-worker’s comment using the “N” word. The manager did not report the matter to HR because the employee allegedly indicated that he wanted to attempt to address the issue directly with the co-worker first. Approximately a month thereafter, on August 31, 2007, the employee reported the harassment to HR and an investigation was commenced. Initially, no witness corroborated the employee’s allegation and the investigation was closed on September 6, 2007, but the alleged harasser was issued a written warning. The employee filed an EEOC charge on September 12, 2007, and also complained to HR about the results of the investigation. The day after, another HR representative took over the investigation, interviewed two additional witnesses, and ultimately concluded that the co-worker had violated the company’s policy against harassment. The co-worker was fired the next day. During the parties’ EEOC mediation session, the employee presented material that consisted of highly confidential HR documents that he had no authority to access, download or possess. When the employee refused to cooperate by failing to identify the individual who gave him the documents or otherwise explain how they came into his possession, he was terminated for violating the employer’s computer policy.
The Court dismissed the employee’s claim that he was discharged in retaliation for having filed an EEOC charge because he failed to show that the employer’s assertion that it terminated him for a legitimate non-discriminatory reason – stealing confidential HR documents, was pretextual. The employee admitted that he was uncooperative and refused to reveal who allegedly gave him the documents when asked. However, the employee was able to proceed with his claims of racial harassment because the Court concluded that the conduct alleged was both objectively and subjectively severe and pervasive so as to create an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile. The Court found that the comments were at their core racially offensive, not just to the employee but to all African-Americans. The Court rejected the employer’s assertion that it could not be liable because it promptly terminated the harasser one day after the employee identified two witnesses who corroborated his allegations of racial harassment. The Court concluded that the indisputable facts demonstrated that the employer had actual knowledge of the co-worker’s racial harassment on July 27, 2007, one month before they started their investigation on August 31, 2007. The court reasoned that a jury could find that the one-month period of inaction amounted to an indifferent response that was not reasonably calculated to end the harassment. The Court also rejected the employer’s assertion that it acted reasonably based on the employee allegedly telling the manager he wanted to resolve the issue on his own. The Court noted that the employer’s confidential file notes reflected that the employee stated that he was afraid to go to HR because the harasser and the HR representative were friends.
LESSONS TO LEARN FROM THIS DECISION.
- Provide employees with at least two methods of filing harassment claims.
- Reemphasize to all supervisors and managers the importance of properly notifying HR or the other management responsible for conducting anti-harassment investigations of any claim or charge of discrimination made by any employee.
- Promptly and thoroughly conduct an investigation into the alleged harassing conduct. Thoroughly document the results of your investigation and if there is insufficient evidence to warrant disciplinary action document your reasons for not taking action. Thereafter, promptly advise all employees to review the anti-harassment policy and re-train managers and supervisors on the importance of adhering to the policy.
- Finally, do not hesitate to contact an attorney when faced with a harassment claim.