Thorough Investigation into Sex Harassment Complaint Provides Key Defense

By Jennifer L. Gokenbach Oct 19, 2016
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A 24-year veteran campus police officer for George Washington University (GW) in Washington, D.C., who was terminated for violating the school's policy on sexual harassment could not show that his termination was due to unlawful race and/or age discrimination in violation of federal and state anti-discrimination laws, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held.

In March 2013, a female campus police officer made a complaint to GW accusing the plaintiff, Todd Ladson, who is black, of making inappropriate comments about her sexual preference and activities.

In response to the internal complaint, GW commenced a workplace investigation, which involved interviewing 13 people and meeting with Ladson multiple times over a one-month period. The investigation revealed "lots of racist and sexually graphic" comments that were allegedly made by Ladson to numerous others beyond the initial complaining officer. Ladson denied making any of the comments and accused the witnesses of being jealous of him and/or lying to the investigator, but did not present any corroborating evidence to the investigator. The investigator concluded that Ladson's conduct was inappropriate, longstanding and pervasive, and that it impacted numerous officers.

After the investigation and according to university policy, a formal hearing was held before a special panel comprised of six GW faculty members and high-level management employees. At the hearing, the chief of GW's police department called five witnesses who testified to remarks and comments made by Ladson regarding their sexuality or the sexuality of others.

Ladson did not present any witnesses, testimony or evidence at the hearing. Instead, he offered only a blanket denial of all of the allegations. Following the hearing, the special panel found that there was ample evidence to support that Ladson's conduct created a hostile work environment. On Sept. 4, 2013, GW terminated Ladson's employment.

Prior to the termination, on Aug. 14, 2014, Ladson filed a lawsuit alleging that the discharge violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and similar state anti-discrimination laws.

The district court granted summary judgment to GW, finding that Ladson failed to show that the university's decision to terminate his employment was pretext for race or age discrimination.

Ladson contended that his termination was unlawful because it was based on a subjective evaluation of his behavior by other complaining officers, that the special panel hearing was unfair because his attorney was not permitted to cross-examine witnesses and that he was treated more harshly than white officers who engaged in similar conduct.

The district court found that there was uncontested evidence of a thorough internal investigation finding that Ladson repeatedly made offensive and inappropriate sexual comments to multiple colleagues while in a supervisory role. It also held that GW followed its policy and procedures that disallowed any advisors or attorneys at a special panel hearing and that the three white officers cited by Ladson as being treated more favorably were not valid comparators to establish pretext for racial and/or age discrimination.

Although one way to discredit an employer's justification for an adverse employment decision is to show that similarly situated employees of a different race or age received more favorable treatment, the court held that a plaintiff must show that the alleged similarly situated employees were charged with offenses of comparable seriousness. Also, the plaintiff must show that all of the relevant aspects of the similarly situated employees— including their job duties and whether they were disciplined by the same supervisor—were nearly identical to that of the accused employee.

In this case, the evidence showed that the first alleged comparator, a white officer, was not supervised by the same supervisor as Ladson and made only isolated sexual remarks that were 16 years apart. The second alleged white comparator accused of using a racial slur was found to have not engaged in the alleged conduct after GW interviewed more than 42 people. And the third alleged white comparator accused of trying to date a subordinate officer was found, after investigation, to have only asked his staff to breakfast in order to get to know them better.

The court therefore concluded that Ladson's offered comparators were not similarly situated and that no reasonable jury would find that Ladson was terminated for race and/or age discrimination.

Ladson v. The George Washington University, D. D.C., No. 14-cv-001586 (Sept. 1, 2016).

Professional Pointer: Employers should take care to fairly evaluate the evidence that has been uncovered during the course of a complete and systematic investigation; consistently follow company policy; and use best efforts to treat all employees similarly when it comes to internal complaints, discipline and other employment actions, regardless of protected class status.

Jennifer L. Gokenbach is an attorney with Gokenbach Law LLC, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Denver.

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