Employers understand that once they become aware of allegations of workplace harassment, they are legally obligated to investigate the claims and if appropriate, to take disciplinary action against the harasser. In some situations however, the complaining employee will not be satisfied with the actions taken by the employer and will challenge the adequacy of the employer’s response in court. In an unpublished decision reached earlier this month, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that serious disciplinary action short of termination served as an appropriate response to the plaintiff’s harassment complaints.
In Davis v. Landscape Forms, Inc., the African-American plaintiff alleged that his co-workers left a banana in his shoe, wrote the word “Chiquita” on tape affixed to his helmet and that on one occasion, someone drew a picture of a monkey on a white board in the workplace. He also claimed that he thought he overheard other unspecified employees using racial slurs in the workplace. In response the employer investigated the incidents and confirmed their occurrence, except for the slurs. The employer issued final written warnings to the employees involved in the incidents, and cancelled payment of production bonuses, costing them several thousand dollars each. After he was fired for timekeeping violations, the plaintiff sued, claiming among other things, that the employer was liable for workplace harassment due to its inadequate response to his complaints.
The Sixth Circuit agreed with the defendant, affirming dismissal of the claims. The court characterized the bonus loss as a prompt and effective response to the harassment complaints. The employer never had information about the alleged slurs specific enough to justify additional disciplinary action. Failure to fully investigate unidentified general racial murmuring does not violate Title VII.
In some circumstances, harassing behavior is so egregious and damaging to the victim that the employer has no choice other than to terminate the perpetrator. However, courts will judge the employer’s reaction to harassment complaints based on the severity and specificity of the claims and evidence provided to it. In some situations, disciplinary measures short of termination can serve as legally adequate responses to employment harassment complaints.