Category Archives: Sexual Harrassment

THREE COMMON EMPLOYER MISTAKES HIGHLIGHTED IN 11.9 MILLION DOLLAR SEXUAL HARASSMENT VERDICT

Last Wednesday a federal jury handed down a $11.9 million verdict in favor of a toy company employee.  The huge verdict is the result of three common mistakes I have seen many businesses make over the course of my career:  (1) having poorly written complaint procedures in their employee handbooks; (2) failing to train and oversee management; and (3) commingling the business and human resource operations of parent, subsidiary, and related entities — which can result in the “joint employer” liability of all entities for just one supervisor’s misconduct.

THE TOY COMPANY CASE IS A CAUTIONARY TALE

Danielle Rennenger  worked at a ToyQuest call center in Iowa.  According to the Des Moines Business Record, Renneger alleged in her lawsuit that her direct supervisor and a co-worker created a hostile work environment with vulgar and harassing remarks as well as gestures and physical advances toward Rennenger and other women. At one point, the supervisor grabbed Rennenger’s head and forced it into his crotch.

“Danielle tried to complain and get them to stop, but Downey basically told her that Hong Kong, referring to the owners, doesn’t care about women,” according to a release from the Newkirk Zwagerman law firm, which represents Rennenger and other plaintiffs.

U.S. District Judge James Gritzner said in an August 3 ruling, “Fundamentally, we know that there’s really no dispute about what happened to Ms. Rennenger in terms of the call center and the behavior of people in the call center.”

After hearing the evidence, a federal jury  awarded Rennenger $10 million in punitive damages, $1.8 million for past and future emotional distress, and nearly $83,000 in lost wages.

Sexual harassment lawsuits brought by other ToyQuest employees are also pending.

MISTAKE NUMBER ONE:  TOYQUEST DID NOT HAVE AN ADEQUATE COMPLAINT POLICY 

The ToyQuest case judge noted that “[I]t seems rather clear in this record that it was very difficult for employees there to know how to proceed in the event that their supervisor was actually the harasser.”

Failing to have a clear policy as to how victims of sexual harassment and discrimination can complain — especially when management or ownership is alleged to be the harasser —  is a surefire way for businesses to get in trouble.  The typical mistakes I see are poorly drafted policies, policies that do not reflect the actual organizational structure of the subject company, policies that contradict themselves, and policies that are hard to understand or are ambiguous.

Avoid mistake number one:  have a bombproof complaint and sexual harassment/discrimination policy and review it annually with counsel.

MISTAKE NUMBER TWO:  TOYQUEST DID NOT TRAIN AND OVERSEE MANAGEMENT

ToyQuest management at the Iowa call center was out of control.  Management training and oversight is critical to create a management team and work environment that is free from harassment and discrimination.  Equally so, management training is essential so that management knows how to apply and comply with the complaint provisions in the employee handbook.

Avoid mistake number two:  conduct periodic management training with counsel and stay ahead of the myriad of problems that come with ignorant or undertrained management.

MISTAKE NUMBER THREE:  TOYQUEST APPEARS TO HAVE COMMINGLED ITS DIVISION’S BUSINESS OPERATIONS

After the lawsuits were filed ToyQuest’s parent company created multiple companies, apparently in an effort to avoid liability, according to Rennenger’s lawyers.  The federal judge agrees:  “And there is a very complex series of positions that the various companies have taken here absolutely contradictory of one another in terms of their relationship and how they were set up. Depending upon which executive you talk to, you get a completely different version of how the call center was set up and who employed those people. In the process of looking at the entire picture of this case, there is substantial evidence of active avoidance of liability,” he said in the Aug. 3 ruling.

If your company has a parent, subsidiary, or related company, it is very easy to expose all your businesses to liability for the “sins” of one.  For example, running HR operations from a central location can expose your businesses to the claim that they are a “joint employer” and thus all liable for harassment which occurred only at one business.

Avoid mistake number three:  if you are operating more than one business and are concerned regarding commonality of operations, ownership, or control  — factors which can expose all the businesses to joint employer liability — contact counsel to determine methods to keep the businesses separate.

Don’t be like ToyQuest.  Instead, understand “joint employer” liability before your businesses  — emphasis on plural — get sued and make any necessary changes.

CONCLUSION

Businesses should stay ahead of harassment, discrimination, and joint employer problems by staying proactive with their policies, training, and organizational structuring.  ToyQuest had the chance to do these things but failed — abysmally — to do so.

Speaking of failing to take advantage of a chance to do something the right way, enjoy “I Had My Chance” by Morphine, one of my top ten favorite blues songs:

WORKPLACE INVESTIGATIONS: SHIELD FOR BUSINESSES OR SWORD FOR PLAINTIFFS?

HR Law Insider’s last edition discussed — using the wacky world of the NFL as an example — workplace investigations.  Businesses should anticipate that their workplace investigations, or lack thereof, may be scrutinized by the EEOC, a judge, or a jury. A good investigation is an effective shield against employment claims; a bad one is a sword for plaintiffs’ lawyers.

EEOC GUIDELINES FOR WORKPLACE INVESTIGATIONS

The EEOC has published guidelines which include many of the elements of an effective investigation:

Effective Investigative Process

An employer should set up a mechanism for a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into alleged harassment. As soon as management learns about alleged harassment, it should determine whether a detailed fact-finding investigation is necessary. For example, if the alleged harasser does not deny the accusation, there would be no need to interview witnesses, and the employer could immediately determine appropriate corrective action.

If a fact-finding investigation is necessary, it should be launched immediately. The amount of time that it will take to complete the investigation will depend on the particular circumstances. If, for example, multiple individuals were allegedly harassed, then it will take longer to interview the parties and witnesses.

It may be necessary to undertake intermediate measures before completing the investigation to ensure that further harassment does not occur. Examples of such measures are making scheduling changes so as to avoid contact between the parties; transferring the alleged harasser; or placing the alleged harasser on non-disciplinary leave with pay pending the conclusion of the investigation. The complainant should not be involuntarily transferred or otherwise burdened, since such measures could constitute unlawful retaliation.

The employer should ensure that the individual who conducts the investigation will objectively gather and consider the relevant facts. The alleged harasser should not have supervisory authority over the individual who conducts the investigation and should not have any direct or indirect control over the investigation. Whoever conducts the investigation should be well-trained in the skills that are required for interviewing witnesses and evaluating credibility.

Questions to Ask Parties and Witnesses

When detailed fact-finding is necessary, the investigator should interview the complainant, the alleged harasser, and third parties who could reasonably be expected to have relevant information. Information relating to the personal lives of the parties outside the workplace would be relevant only in unusual circumstances. When interviewing the parties and witnesses, the investigator should refrain from offering his or her opinion.

The following are examples of questions that may be appropriate to ask the parties and potential witnesses. Any actual investigation must be tailored to the particular facts.

Questions to Ask the Complainant:

  • Who, what, when, where, and how: Who committed the alleged harassment? What exactly occurred or was said? When did it occur and is it still ongoing? Where did it occur? How often did it occur? How did it affect you?
  • How did you react? What response did you make when the incident(s) occurred or afterwards?
  • How did the harassment affect you? Has your job been affected in any way?
  • Are there any persons who have relevant information? Was anyone present when the alleged harassment occurred? Did you tell anyone about it? Did anyone see you immediately after episodes of alleged harassment?
  • Did the person who harassed you harass anyone else? Do you know whether anyone complained about harassment by that person?
  • Are there any notes, physical evidence, or other documentation regarding the incident(s)?
  • How would you like to see the situation resolved?
  • Do you know of any other relevant information?

Questions to Ask the Alleged Harasser:

  • What is your response to the allegations?
  • If the harasser claims that the allegations are false, ask why the complainant might lie.
  • Are there any persons who have relevant information?
  • Are there any notes, physical evidence, or other documentation regarding the incident(s)?
  • Do you know of any other relevant information?

Questions to Ask Third Parties:

  • What did you see or hear? When did this occur? Describe the alleged harasser’s behavior toward the complainant and toward others in the workplace.
  • What did the complainant tell you? When did s/he tell you this?
  • Do you know of any other relevant information?
  • Are there other persons who have relevant information?

Credibility Determinations

If there are conflicting versions of relevant events, the employer will have to weigh each party’s credibility. Credibility assessments can be critical in determining whether the alleged harassment in fact occurred. Factors to consider include:

  • Inherent plausibility: Is the testimony believable on its face? Does it make sense?
  • Demeanor: Did the person seem to be telling the truth or lying?
  • Motive to falsify: Did the person have a reason to lie?
  • Corroboration: Is there witness testimony (such as testimony by eye-witnesses, people who saw the person soon after the alleged incidents, or people who discussed the incidents with him or her at around the time that they occurred) or physical evidence (such as written documentation) that corroborates the party’s testimony?
  • Past record: Did the alleged harasser have a history of similar behavior in the past?

None of the above factors are determinative as to credibility. For example, the fact that there are no eye-witnesses to the alleged harassment by no means necessarily defeats the complainant’s credibility, since harassment often occurs behind closed doors. Furthermore, the fact that the alleged harasser engaged in similar behavior in the past does not necessarily mean that he or she did so again.

Reaching a Determination

Once all of the evidence is in, interviews are finalized, and credibility issues are resolved, management should make a determination as to whether harassment occurred. That determination could be made by the investigator, or by a management official who reviews the investigator’s report. The parties should be informed of the determination.

In some circumstances, it may be difficult for management to reach a determination because of direct contradictions between the parties and a lack of documentary or eye-witness corroboration. In such cases, a credibility assessment may form the basis for a determination, based on factors such as those set forth above.

If no determination can be made because the evidence is inconclusive, the employer should still undertake further preventive measures, such as training and monitoring.

CONCLUSION

The EEOC guidelines provide employers with an excellent understanding of how the EEOC “thinks,” how it will scrutinize employers’ investigations, and how it will decide cases.

The EEOC’s guidelines, however, are just that: guidelines.  These particular guidelines involve a hypothetical complaint of sexual harassment.  No two situations — or complaints — are  alike.  Thus,  each investigation should be planned and conducted based on the unique facts that are presented.

Companies should consult counsel when launching an investigation, making difficult decisions during the investigation, and when a final conclusion is about to be reached.

For how NOT to conduct an investigation, enjoy Inspector Clouseau in action:

 

 

LONG ISLAND LIMO COMPANY LIABLE FOR FIRING FEMALE EMPLOYEE WHO REFUSED TO HAVE SEX WITH MANAGER

The New York Post reported today that a married Long Island ­limo-company manager told a female dispatcher he was firing her because she rejected his sexual ­advances — and even put it in writing: http://nypost.com/2015/04/10/boss-texts-gal-shes-fired-because-she-refused-his-sexual-advances/

According to the Post:

“The damning text — sent by former US Limousine manager Raymond Towns­end to pretty underling Geralyn Ganci — ended up costing him and his employer more than $700,000 in legal damages and fees, court papers show.

Ganci, 32, sued Townsend after she was fired for repeatedly refusing his barrage of sleazy requests, which eventually landed her in the hospital with extreme emotional distress, her suit said.

The sex-crazed Townsend said in one text that he “had to pull over to the side of the road and masturbate thinking about me,” Ganci said in her suit.

Ganci said she was shocked and sickened by his behavior — which occurred despite the fact that Townsend’s wife worked at the same New Hyde Park company and sat near her.

Finally, after allegedly forcing her into a restroom and putting his hand up her shirt, Townsend told the resistant Ganci she was fired in February 2009.

“The plaintiff even received another text message from Raymond Townsend which has been preserved stating that the reason plaintiff was fired was because she ‘refused to have sex with the general manager,’ ” according to the court papers.”

WHEN IS AN EMPLOYER LIABLE FOR ITS SUPERVISOR’S SEXUAL HARRASSMENT?

An employer may be subject to liability to a victimized employee for a hostile environment created by a supervisor with immediate (or successively higher) authority over the employee.  However, when no tangible employment action is taken, a defending employer can avoid liability IF (a) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior, and (b) the plaintiff employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise.

While proof that an employee failed to fulfill the corresponding obligation of reasonable care to avoid harm is not limited to showing an unreasonable failure to use any complaint procedure provided by the employer, a demonstration of such failure will normally suffice to satisfy the employer’s burden.

No affirmative defense is available, however, when the supervisor’s harassment culminates in a tangible employment action, such as discharge, demotion, or undesirable reassignment.

LESSONS FROM LONG ISLAND

Rogue supervisors — such as the Long Island limo manager — are unfortunately present in many companies.  To avoid liability for a supervisor’s misconduct, ensure that:

  • Your company has a solid complaint procedure in its employee handbook and/or other policies;
  • Any complaint procedure provides that the alleged victim can complain not only to the employee’s supervisor, but also to upper management and beyond in the event that the employee is uncomfortable complaining to the supervisor or unsatisfied with the company’s investigation;
  • The complaint procedure is known to all employees, documented as such, and reviewed with employees by management on at least an annual basis;
  • Company management is trained by legal counsel periodically on handling and investigating complaints;
  • The Complaint procedure is reviewed annually for any changes in the law or your organization;
  • Your company carefully follows its complaint procedure; and
  • If there has been supervisor harassment, it does not culminate in a tangible employment action, such as discharge, demotion, or undesirable reassignment.

 

 

THE FORMULA FOR MAKING GOOD HR DECISIONS

Employment lawyers routinely field calls from business clients asking for help assessing whether they are “safe” terminating particular employees. No two fact scenarios are identical. Thus, there is no precise methodology to guide such decisions.

There is, however, a solid and time tested general formula I have developed for helping businesses make good workplace decisions. It derives from a 1944 case that is required reading for all first year law students. In Carroll Towing, a flour filled barge in New York Harbor broke loose and crashed into a number of other ships, causing lots of mayhem – and damages.

What does a 1944 runaway barge case have to do making workplace decisions in 2014? Plenty. The judge’s reasoning in Carrol Towing applies to workplace decisions as well:

Since there are occasions when every vessel will break from her moorings, and since, if she does, she becomes, a menace to those about her; the owner’s duty, as in other similar situations, to provide against resulting injuries is a function of three variables: (1) The probability that she will break away; (2) the gravity of the resulting injury, if she does; (3) the burden of adequate precautions. Possibly it serves to bring this notion into relief to state it in algebraic terms: if the probability be called P; the injury, L; and the burden, B; liability depends upon whether B is less than L multiplied by P: i.e., whether B < PL.

Substitute “employee” for “vessel” and let’s walk through dealing with a problem employee. In deciding whether to discipline the employee you should consider (1) the possibility of further infractions, (2) the gravity of harm if the employee continues to misbehave, and (3) the burden of disciplining the employee or of other preventive action.

Prudent employers recognize that in most cases the “burden” of disciplining employees is slight when compared to downside of doing nothing. Two separate risks arise when employers do nothing in the face of workplace infractions or nonperformance. First, the risk of further infractions and ongoing nonperformance rises. These problems in turn hurt the company’s productivity and can cause safety and  morale problems, among others.

Second — and arguably far worse — failing to timely discipline an employee causes increases the risk of a successful wrongful discharge lawsuit. This occurs because the employer has either (a) allowed a misbehaving employee to continue unabated or (b) terminated an employee with a seemingly clean work record.

Let’s apply Carroll Towing to two hypothetical situations and watch it work against imprudent employers:

Hypothetical I: Company A has a high revenue producing male employee who enjoys harassing female employees. This creates a high probability that there will be a claim of sexual harrassment.   It is also likely that the company will be in a lawsuit and exposed to damages and bad publicity. The gravity of the resulting injury is high – like that of a runaway barge.

Company A, however, does nothing because it (1) is willfully ignorant of the probability and gravity of a discrimination lawsuit and (2) perceives the burden of disciplining the large revenue producer to be too great. Company A may likely get what it deserves: protracted legal proceedings, lots of wasted time, and multiple checks written to attorneys and plaintiffs.

Hypothetical II: Company B has a poorly performing employee that is over 40, in a minority group, and has a physical disability. The employee is not performing well and is frequently late to work (unrelated to the disability). The employer fails to understand the risk and gravity of ongoing nonperformance and fails to take the simple act of disciplining the employee.

Company B “wakes up” at some point and realizes it must terminate the nonperforming employee, who is crushing morale and productivity and can be replaced by a newfound superstar candidate. But it is too late.  The company should long ago have realized the possibility and the gravity of a Title VII charge of discrimination if it terminated the employee before there was any written record of the employee doing anything wrong.

By failing to take the simple step of disciplining the employee, Company B is now stuck on the horns of a dilemma: either fire the employee and risk a discrimination lawsuit because there is no record of nonperformance, or retain a lousy employee.

Understanding the probability and gravity of workplace problems allows businesses to take reasonable precautions to avoid them. It’s a simple formula to understand and apply.  The next time your business confronts a problem employee, evaluate:  what can the company do to reduce or eliminate the potential and magnitude of future problems.

SIDE STORY:  Back in the day — the Big 80s — I was an ocean lifeguard on Hollywood Beach, Florida.  The potential for drownings was high when weighed against the precaution of carefully watching my section of the beach/surf.

Ironically, the best lifeguards on our beach had the fewest saves.  Why?  Because a good guard quickly sees and understands a problem swimmer or bad surf or wind conditions.  This enables the guard to takes measures — moving a swimmer away from a rip current — before a rescue becomes necessary.  When company managers have the training and smarts to identify “rip currents” among employees, they too will prevent crises before they occur.

Carroll Towing applies to any number of situations in life. This week’s video pays tribute to the 29 men who died on November 10, 1975, aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior. You’ve likely heard the great ballad by Gordon Lightfoot which chronicles the disaster. If you like the song, you will love this touching video (turn up the volume):