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Sexual Harassment in The Workplace Can Be a Serious Claim

Jan. 18, 2013

Many employers are faced with claims of sexual harassment in the workplace. While the claims are serious, if an employer has taken steps to protect against sexual harassment, it will be in a better position to defend itself. Ritchey & Ritchey, P.A. has successfully argued summary judgment motions for an employer, even where the accusations involved a supervisor. In a case that was pending in the U.S. District Court of Alabama, located in Montgomery, Alabama, an employee filed a Title VII lawsuit alleging quid pro quo (tangible employment action) and hostile work environment sexual harassment and that the plaintiff was constructively discharged. The civil action was filed by a Birmingham, Alabama law firm for an Andalusia plaintiff. The plaintiff alleged that her supervisor sexually harassed her for over two (2) years. The plaintiff filed suit against her employer, as well as against her immediate supervisor. After depositions were taken, the employer and supervisor moved for summary judgment.

The District Court found that after being hired, the plaintiff received an employee handbook, which included the Employer’s policy on harassment and discrimination and watched an orientation video related to sexually harassment at work. The policy encouraged employees to report incidents of harassment to the regional manager, employee relations director, or human resources manager. The employees were also given a toll-free complaint number to anonymously report incidents of sexual harassment.

The plaintiff claimed that the sexual harassment continued the entire two (2) years she was employed which forced her to submit a letter of resignation. In the resignation letter, she only stated the reason she was leaving was because the job no longer held her interest and she was no longer happy at her workplace. Shortly after the plaintiff submitted her resignation, she told a co-employee she intended to sue the employer for sexual harassment. The co-employee notified her supervisor that the plaintiff intended to sue for sexual harassment. The supervisor notified his supervisor who, in turn, notified the employer’s human resources department. The human resources department began an immediate investigation and sent a regional supervisor to interview the plaintiff in private. During the interview, the plaintiff never complained that any alleged sexual harassment was a reason for her leaving. The regional supervisor asked the plaintiff to send an email with her reasons for leaving. In the plaintiff’s email to the regional supervisor, she stated her reason for leaving was because her husband wanted her to stay home. The employer also conducted a further investigation by questioning other females in the office. The other females denied they had witnessed any sexual harassment or had been subjected to any incidences of sexual harassment while working.

While the plaintiff was working out her two (2) weeks notice, the plaintiff’s immediate supervisor confronted her in front of co-workers and accused her of recording a conversation with another person. The plaintiff worked the remainder of the day and then did not return to work out her two (2) weeks’ notice. The plaintiff later filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC and, after obtaining a right to sue letter, filed her civil action.

The plaintiff claimed she was subjected to quid pro quo (tangible employment action) and hostile work environment sexual harassment. To prove tangible employment action sexual harassment in violation of Title VII, the plaintiff had the burden of proving that the harassment culminated in a “tangible employment action” against her. A tangible employment action constitutes a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits. The Court concluded that the plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case of tangible employment action sexual harassment as she could not prove she suffered a tangible employment action for refusing to respond to her supervisor’s sexual demands.

The Court also determined that the plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case of hostile work environment. The Court determined that a defendant can avoid liability by establishing the Faragher-Ellerth defense to show that the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior and that the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities that the employer provided. The Court found that the plaintiff failed to take advantage of the employer’s preventative measures and that the employer established both elements of the Faragher-Ellerth defense. While the plaintiff also claimed she was constructively discharged, the Court determined that while the recording of a conversation was a dischargeable offense, there was no official act to terminate, demote, or otherwise exercise company authority which precipitated a constructive discharge under Title VII. Based on the forgoing, a summary judgment was granted in the employer’s favor.

Employers should consider taking steps to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. The attorneys at Ritchey & Ritchey, P.A. can assist companies in finding ways to establish and implement policies and procedures to help prevent harassment in the workplace.