Labor & Employment Law Daily Verdict for employee fired after complaining of pornography-viewing coworker upheld but punitive damages slashed
Monday, October 1, 2018

Verdict for employee fired after complaining of pornography-viewing coworker upheld but punitive damages slashed

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

A jury had a legally sufficient basis to find a parish assistant, who complained about a coworker viewing pornography at work and about her employer’s inadequate investigation of her report, engaged in protected activity and that this caused her employer to terminate her, a federal court in Illinois ruled, denying the employer’s renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law. Although the court upheld the $200,000 compensatory damages award, it reduced her punitive damages from $500,000 to $50,000, finding that although the employer terminated her unlawfully, there was little evidence it did so maliciously (Sanchez v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, September 26, 2018, Pallmeyer, R.).

After more than 15 years of volunteering for the Archdiocese of Chicago, the employee was hired to work as a full-time parish assistant. Just a few months later, she walked into the computer room and found an employee of the company that provided IT services to the parish sitting at his desk facing a computer and viewing what she described as “nude women in motion.” She stood there for several seconds before walking away. She did not report the incident.

Complaint. Two weeks later, she again observed the IT employee sitting at his desk viewing “what appeared to be a video of nude women on the screen.” This time, she immediately reported the incident to the parish business manager, who said he would talk to Father Larry. An hour later, Father Larry met with the employee and business manager and after several minutes directed the manager to “handle this.”

Investigation. The manager arranged to meet with the IT employee and his boss but the night before the scheduled meeting, the IT employee and his boss met alone in the computer room with the door closed. Later that week, the manager told the employee that the IT boss provided a log showing there were no porn sites viewed on the computer and assured him that “no one could have gotten through the firewall to pornographic websites.” Although the employee protested that these were “the very people who built this network,” and that she was still concerned, the manager told her the investigation was over.

Let it go. Over the next several months, the employee complained to the manager about the lack of an investigation. In response, she was told to “let it go.” On a Friday in early November, she again told him he didn’t do a proper investigation and that she “just couldn’t work like this any longer.” He told her she was on a “witch hunt” and that he needed to leave. According to the manager, she followed him out of the building in a rage, “yelling and screaming . . . saying the F word at least 20 times … spit flying out of her mouth,” and she had grabbed his shoulder. The employee, however, denied touching him, swearing, or spitting.

You can turn in your keys. When she called him on Sunday, he told her “if you can’t let this go, you can turn in your keys on Monday.” On Monday, the manager told her she was being terminated for unprofessional conduct and because she lacked the “skill set to handle what needs to be done.”

She sued, alleging retaliation for complaining about unlawful sex discrimination in violation of Title VII and state law. After a trial, a jury awarded her $700,000 in damages. Renewing its prior motion for judgment as a matter of law, the employer argued that she did not engage in protected activity and in the alternative, there was no causal link between her protected activity and her termination.

Protected activity. The employee argued that her complaints qualified as protected conduct for purposes of a retaliation claim because pornography “is sex-based and demeaning to women” and therefore could create a work environment that is sexually hostile “if displayed often enough.” Her employer, however, contended that a plaintiff’s complaint about her coworkers’ actions can never be objectively reasonable for purposes of a Title VII retaliation claim unless the persons engaging in the complained-of conduct intentionally targeted the plaintiff or another individual, and did so because of that person’s membership in a protected class. But the court did not agree that there can be no hostile work environment without a showing that the plaintiff was targeted. Nor must a plaintiff show her complaints were about conduct targeted at her, said the court, noting that a person could honestly and reasonably believe the actions of her coworkers, even if not directed at her or any specific individual, created a hostile work environment.

Also rejected was the employer’s assertion that her complaint about her coworker watching pornography in the workplace was not sufficiently connected to her sex to qualify as protected conduct. While two brief observations of a coworker watching what the employee believed was pornography may not be enough to establish a hostile work environment claim, being exposed to pornography in the workplace is “the type of occurrence that, if it happened often enough, could constitute sexual harassment,” said the court, finding that the presence of pornography in the workplace falls within “the category of conduct prohibited by the statute,” and a reasonable jury could find that her initial, good-faith complaint was protected conduct for purposes of her retaliation claim.

Inadequate investigation. So too with her subsequent complaints about what she believed to be the employer’s inadequate investigation of her original report. To find her complaints about the investigation were protected, the jury needed evidence that she honestly and reasonably believed her employer failed to take reasonable steps to discover or remedy the behavior she identified in her original complaint and here there was such evidence. Not only did Father Larry admit he did not report her allegations to the Archdiocese’s Office as he was arguably required to do, the business manager admitted it was “strange” the IT employees had been in the computer room alone before his scheduled meeting with them. Although the investigation may not have actually been unlawful, that did not make her belief she was opposing unlawful conduct unreasonable per se.

The evidence presented at trial, said the court, would allow a reasonable jury to conclude she complained about deficiencies in their response to her report of pornography in the workplace and even if the deficiencies were not severe enough to hold the employer vicariously liable, the jury could reasonably infer they made it significantly more likely that she and other women at the parish would be exposed to sexually offensive content in the future. Thus, her complaints about the deficiencies qualified as protected conduct.

Causation. As to the employer’s argument that the nearly seven months between her original complaints and her termination precluded a finding of causation, the court pointed out that the subsequent complaints about the investigation were also protected conduct and the evidence linking those complaints to her termination was far stronger. The employee and business manager admitted they were talking about the investigation on the days before her termination and the manager warned her that “if you can’t let this go, you can turn in your keys on Monday.” He also indicated to HR that she was “threatening to go public.” Further, the employee disputed that she touched, swore at, or spit on the manager during her conversations with him. Accordingly, the jury had a legally sufficient basis for its findings.

Damages. Upholding the $200,000 compensatory damages award, the court noted evidence that the employee not only lost an income stream, she suffered significant damage to her religious and social life, both of which revolved around the church. As to punitive damages, however, the court, finding remittitur appropriate, reduced her award from $500,000 to $50,000 as there was very little evidence of malice. The employee, said the court, was free to accept the remittitur or proceed to a new trial on damages.

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