It’s not unusual to see an employee terminated or disciplined for workplace harassment to in turn file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that the employer’s reasons for the move were pretext for a discriminatory motivation. As you would expect, in most situations, the EEOC or federal courts require a high degree of proof in order to support the accused harasser’s claims against the employer.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals continued this trend on July 22, quickly affirming dismissal of a race discrimination claim filed by a custodial employee terminated for sexually harassing a co-worker. In Matias v. Elon University, the plaintiff claimed that his employer failed to promote him and later terminated his employment because of his Mexican heritage. He sued under Title VII, as well as Section 1981. To support his failure-to-promote claim, the plaintiff alleged some anti-Mexican statements made by the decision maker. The Fourth Circuit found that these statements were isolated and sufficiently removed in time from the promotion decision to avoid any reasonable connection.
In terms of the termination claim, the plaintiff pointed out a white co-worker who he alleged engaged in sexual harassment yet remained employed by the university. The Fourth Circuit disagreed with the comparison, noting the difference with the severity of the alleged harassment justified the employer taking different remedial actions. The court also discounted the plaintiff’s claim that his supervisor manipulated the investigation of the harassment claims to ensure his termination.
The EEOC and federal courts remain understandably reluctant to punish employers that investigate and take strong remedial action in response to sexual and other unlawful harassment complaints. While accused harassers can allege improper motivations behind the employers’ decisions, they usually have a tough time convincing federal agencies and courts that they are the real victims.