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An employer's prompt, effective response to an employee's complaint of same-sex harassment led to the defeat of the employee's subsequent claims under federal and state anti-discrimination laws, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held.
A shift manager at a U.S. Steel plant worked closely with a process coordinator, who trained the shift manager and assigned his duties.
The coordinator allegedly began harassing the shift manager, who was the plaintiff, as soon as they started working together. The colleague regularly asked about the plaintiff's sex life, questions that made the plaintiff uncomfortable. But the plaintiff did not complain because he believed his continued employment hinged on the coordinator's approval of him.
The coordinator also allegedly physically harassed the plaintiff on at least two occasions. Eventually, the plaintiff told his area manager and division manager, as well as two HR managers, about the harassment. They offered the plaintiff a transfer to a different area of the plant so that he would no longer work directly with the coordinator, and the plaintiff accepted.
The four managers then met with the coordinator, who admitted to some of the physical acts of harassment. They issued the coordinator a verbal warning and a one-week suspension, demoted him to shift manager, and made him take a leadership class. The coordinator and the plaintiff still interacted occasionally thereafter but there was no more harassment.
The plaintiff resigned a few months later and filed suit under federal and state law, asserting claims of same-sex harassment. The federal district court granted summary judgment to the company, and the 6th Circuit affirmed.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Equal Employment Opportunity]
First, the 6th Circuit rejected the plaintiff's argument that the coordinator was his manager. The appellate court found that, although the coordinator could assign duties to the plaintiff, the coordinator could not significantly change the plaintiff's employment status. The coordinator could recommend that the plaintiff be demoted or discharged but was not authorized to take such actions on his own.
Second, the 6th Circuit rejected the plaintiff's argument that the company has not responded reasonably to his internal complaint and that male employees who had harassed women had been disciplined more harshly than the coordinator. The appellate court held that the law did not require that an employer treat every harassment complaint the same. Instead, the 6th Circuit held that an employer's response would be deemed adequate if it was reasonably calculated to end the harassment, and it determined that the company had responded adequately in the plaintiff's case.
Hylko v. Hemphill, 6th Cir., No. 16-2414 (Oct. 3, 2017).
Professional Pointer: This case is a reminder that even a relatively informal investigation may be found to satisfy an employer's legal obligations if it is conducted promptly and in a good-faith effort to reach the truth. Most important to an employer's ability to avoid liability is whether it takes action that is reasonably likely to prevent the harassment from recurring.
William D. Deveney is a partner with Elarbee, Thompson, Sapp & Wilson LLC, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Atlanta.
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