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Federal Appeals Court Says Employer Must Have Reasonable Opportunity to Investigate Harassment Complaint

    Client Alerts
  • March 15, 2021

Under Title VII, an employer may be liable for sexual harassment by one co-worker of another if it knew or should have known of the conduct and took no action. According to a recent decision from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, employees who allege harassment must give their employers a chance to review the claims before concluding that the employer’s response is ineffective.

In Lopez v. Whirlpool Corp., the employee alleged that she complained to human resources about unwanted touching by a co-worker. She resigned four days after allegedly making a complaint and subsequently sued the employer for tolerating creation of a hostile work environment. The district court dismissed the complaint on the grounds that the plaintiff had not met the legal requirements for demonstrating a hostile environment under Title VII.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the decision on two grounds. First, the touching alleged by the plaintiff did not rise to the level required to demonstrate a hostile environment. Second, because the plaintiff quit only four days after first making the employer aware of her complaints, she therefore deprived the employer of a reasonable opportunity to investigate and deal with the alleged conduct.

The court did not set a specific time limit for investigating sexual or other harassment complaints. Employers should promptly begin their reviews of these complaints. If unusual circumstances force a delay in the investigation, this should be reported to the complaining employee, along with an estimate of the time necessary to complete the review.