Allegedly harassed employee can’t introduce evidence of earlier complaints, incidents
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Thursday, October 31, 2019

Allegedly harassed employee can’t introduce evidence of earlier complaints, incidents

By Joy P. Waltemath, J.D.

Five coworkers’ claims of alleged sexual harassment would not be introduced into evidence, said the court, although it would reserve judgment until trial on one of them.

Although a former employee claiming sexual harassment and discrimination offered up a handful of incidents and claims of prior sexually harassing behavior in her workplace, most of those incidents were either too remote in time, involved individuals with whom the employee had not interacted, or involved negotiated settlements that the court could not evaluate. One verbal claim involving the same harasser would be evaluated on the basis of proffered testimony later, outside the jury’s hearing, said the court, noting it couldn’t decide relevance on the information before it (Jelu-Iravedra v. Municipality of Guaynabo, October 23, 2019, Arias-Marxuach, R.).

The former employee sought to introduce evidence of prior complaints and incidents of sexual harassment and retaliation to bolster her own 2016 lawsuit claiming that her supervisor (Hector O’Neill-Rosa) had sexually harassed her, and that her public employer had retaliated and discriminated against her.

Specifically, she wanted to introduce evidence regarding:

  1. Two coworkers’ sexual harassment complaints filed with the EEOC, in 2016 and 2012, respectively, against a former mayor and the municipality;
  2. A different coworker’s internal complaint from 2003 against a former chief of the municipality’s Legal Division, as well as her retaliation charge filed in 2009 with the EEOC;
  3. A fourth coworker’s verbal sexual harassment complaint against the director of the municipality’s Legal Division and a supervisor of the former employee; and
  4. a fifth coworker’s verbal complaint against the same individual who the former employee alleged had sexually harassed her.

Her employer contended the evidence would be highly prejudicial and had "zero probative value," especially as only one of the claims involved the same individual she alleged had harassed her. It also argued that most of the claims were too remote to be relevant. For the most part, the court agreed.

While evidence of an employer’s discriminatory state of-mind or atmosphere is not necessarily irrelevant simply because it doesn’t "coincide precisely with the particular actors or timeframe involved," the court also noted that it was required to make a careful balancing.

EEOC claims. As to the two coworkers’ EEOC claims, although they weren’t automatically considered hearsay, courts in the First Circuit are generally reluctant to use EEOC charges as evidence because they fear that these documents are "inherently unreliable." Here, both proffered EEOC claims "ended in separate confidential settlement agreements" between the individual personally and the claimants. The First Circuit has upheld the exclusion of prior settled lawsuits because the "cases were decided on the basis of negotiations, not findings of fact," which the court agreed applied here, the settlement basis being unknown to it, so it denied the former employee’s request to introduce the EEOC charges into evidence.

Coworker’s 2003 internal complaint and 2009 EEOC retaliation charge. Although the other coworker’s EEOC retaliation charge was not settled, the employee failed to provide a copy of the charge, failed to describe the alleged retaliation, and failed to explain the connection between the charge and the internal complaint six years earlier. That meant the court couldn’t even analyze its relevance, its similarity to the employee’s claims, or its potential for prejudice. Besides it was so remote in time—the internal complaint in 2003-2004, over nine years before the employee even started working for the municipality—and the employee had never worked with the individual who was the subject of the coworker’s complaint. As such, these complaints would not be admitted into evidence.

Fourth coworker’s verbal harassment complaint. This verbal sexual harassment complaint was made against the employee’s supervisor, so it would be relevant to establishing a hostile and discriminatory atmosphere. But on the pleadings, the court could not tell if this complaint was too remote to be rendered irrelevant, so it withheld ruling until it heard the proffered testimony outside the presence of the jury.

As to the fifth coworker, the employee failed to include that coworker in her revised witness list and thus her request to admit that evidence was deemed withdrawn.

The case is No. 16-1585 (RAM).

Attorneys: Jose F. Quetglas (Quetglas Law Office) for Ines Maria Jelu-Iravedra. Claudio Aliff-Ortiz (Aldarondo & Lopez Bras) for Municipality of Guaynabo.

Cases: EvidenceDiscovery SexualHarassment SexDiscrimination Discrimination PublicEmployees PuertoRicoNews

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