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Fourth Circuit Says Employer’s Tepid Response to Harassment Claims Insufficient to Avoid Jury Trial

    Client Alerts
  • August 07, 2009

Virtually every employer knows that it has a legal obligation to investigate and to deal with allegations of discrimination or harassment based on a protected category.  A new decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North and South Carolina) demonstrates that a half-hearted reaction by the employer to such allegations will not be enough to avoid liability under Title VII.

In EEOC v. Central Wholesalers, Inc., the plaintiff was an African-American female who worked with White males in inside sales.  From the beginning of her work in the department, she began complaining about her co-workers’ constant use of profanity, use of racial epithets, display of pornographic materials, and constant harassment and belittling of her.  Based on these complaints, the employer took a series of actions, including temporarily suspending one employee’s Internet access, unsuccessfully trying to locate the pornography, and repeatedly counseling employees about their use of profanity in the workplace.  When these behaviors continued unabated, the plaintiff quit, and the EEOC sued on her behalf.

The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the employer, remanding the matter for jury trial.  The court found ample evidence of offensive and hostile behavior.  Although it acknowledged that the employer had responded to the complaints, it found that the responses fell short of that required under Title VII.

For example, the court noted that the employer could have suspended or terminated employees involved in repeated allegations of violation of company policy, yet it only repeatedly counseled and warned them.  Moreover, the employer basically ignored the racial harassment claims, responding only to the sexual harassment allegations made by the plaintiff.

While the Fourth Circuit declined to establish a list of required employer responses to harassment allegations, it made clear that absent strong responses that end the harassing conduct, juries will be empowered to determine the adequacy of the employers’ response.  This decision clearly demonstrates that employers must take prompt and clear steps to address verified instances of workplace harassment.  By failing to adequately address the complaints, employers subject themselves to considerable financial exposure if the behavior continues.