Labor & Employment Law Daily Despite jury verdict otherwise, employer that investigated and fired harasser not liable
Thursday, June 28, 2018

Despite jury verdict otherwise, employer that investigated and fired harasser not liable

Though a jury found in an employee’s favor on her sexual harassment claim, a district court did not err in granting judgment as a matter of law for an employer because it took prompt remedial action by telling the accused to stay away from the employee, investigating him, and then firing him when an independent investigator found sexual harassment. Because the employer remedied the harassment promptly and there was no recurrence, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed (Wilcox v. Corrections Corporation of America, June 25, 2018, Branch, E.).

Coworker’s alleged harassment. The employee worked as a corrections officer at McRae Correctional Facility, a federal prison operated by her employer, Corrections Corporation of America. According to her, a male coworker inappropriately hugged her and made sexual comments, including references to her “juicy thighs.” On July 10, 2009, the coworker allegedly slapped her on the buttocks twice, and she filed a formal complaint about that incident the same day. The company told him to stay away from her and in the days after her complaint, he rolled his eyes at her once and punched a metal machine in her presence, allegedly to intimidate her. She complained a second time. However, she conceded that he never touched her or made inappropriate comments after her July 10 complaint.

Coworker investigated and fired. The company brought in an outside investigator to look at these and other complaints against the same male employee. In an interview the employee described two prior incidents of alleged inappropriate hugging and sexual comments. On September 9, the investigator submitted a report finding the male coworker had sexually harassment the employee and other coworkers. He was fired on September 14.

Sexual harassment suit. The employee filed suit for sexual harassment under Title VII. In a prior appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed summary judgment in part, finding triable issues on whether the harassment was sufficiently severe and pervasive. Summary judgment was affirmed against her retaliation claims.

Post-verdict JMOL for employer. On remand, a trial was held and the jury returned a verdict for the employee of $4,000 in actual damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. The employer was then granted its renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL) after the court found that its prompt remedial action in response to the employee’s complaints barred liability.

Employer didn’t know of harassment until employee’s complaint. Affirming, the Eleventh Circuit found no evidence supporting the employee’s argument that the employer should have known about the sexual harassment before her first report, on July 10, that the coworker slapped her on the buttocks. It was not until September 9 (the date of the investigator’s report) that the company knew of two prior occasions of inappropriate touching and comments. Though the employee claimed that the employer should have known of the coworker’s inappropriate habit of hugging female employees, she testified that she never reported the hugging, and the other evidence of hugging in the record does not support the inference that the hugging was widespread or that other employees considered it offensive. Nor did the employee report the coworker’s intimidating conduct, and the record contained no evidence that the company should have known about it at the time.

Employer enforced policy. Even assuming that the employer had constructive knowledge of the harassment, it was insulated from liability based on its comprehensive, well-known anti-discrimination policy. While the employee claimed it wasn’t vigorously enforced, the record showed it was enforced here given that the alleged harasser was admonished, investigated, and then terminated.

Effective and prompt. Because the employer’s actions prevented recurrence of harassment about which it knew, it took remedial action that was effective, “and a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find otherwise,” held the appeals court.

As for whether it was sufficiently prompt, the court noted that there is no bright-line rule. Here, though, the employer immediately ordered the accused harasser to avoid contact with the employee and then fired him two weeks after the investigator’s report. While the employee argued that six weeks between her first complaint and the investigator’s interview was too long, the appeals court disagreed. There were a “lot of moving parts in the company’s investigation, and each of those workings took time.” For example, both of the employee’s written complaints had to be examined internally and referred to the ethics office, other employees’ allegations had to be investigated, and another investigator had to be brought in from out of state and she interviewed 16 employees. In light of all of this, no reasonable jury would find the company failed to act promptly. Consequently, the company was not liable.

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