Winning Harassment Claims in the #MeToo EraIn this #MeToo era, employers are, understandably, a little sensitive when someone raises a claim of harassment. Even with the heightened sense of peril, companies should remember that if they are doing the right thing—having effective policies in place and handling complaints appropriately—they can still prevail. A recent decision, Peebles v. Greene County Hospital Board and Elmore Patterson, makes this abundantly clear.

The Facts

Elmore Patterson was the CEO of Greene County Hospital’s (GCH) residential care facility. Beginning in November 2013, Wennoa Peebles was his executive assistant, as well as an accounts payable clerk in the business office. According to Peebles, Patterson created a hostile work environment in a number of ways, including his use of profanity, demeaning comments (telling Peebles she was “just part of the room” and “not to speak,” referring to female employees as “opossums” and that he would not sleep with the “opossums”), and occasional, off-handed sexual comments (such as comments about paddling a female employee’s rear end and bosom).

Peebles, who was not the only employee who raised concerns about Patterson, complained to a number of GCH board members about his behavior. In October 2015, GCH got a letter from Peebles’ lawyer noting that Peebles’ had complained about her work environment, was experiencing discrimination and retaliation, and was filing an EEOC charge. She filed the charge on November 4, 2015, alleging sex discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment. About 10 days later, GCH told Peebles she should submit any complaints about her work environment to a designated board member. GCH also gave Peebles the option of transferring to her prior position (certified nursing assistant) at no loss of pay.

In January 2016, Patterson suspected that Peebles had disclosed board member email addresses. When he asked Peebles about it, she denied doing so. Patterson did some additional digging and concluded that not only had she disclosed the emails, she had lied to him about it and terminated her. Not surprisingly, Peebles believed that GCH terminated her not because of her disclosure of the email addresses but because of her protected activity.

Summary Judgment for the Employer

The district court granted summary judgment to GCH on both the harassment and retaliation claims. With regard to Peebles’ harassment claim, GCH apparently conceded that Peebles had established that she belonged to a protected group, that she was the subject of unwelcome harassment, and that the harassment was based on her sex. The court found, however, that Peebles had not established that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to alter the terms and conditions of employment to create a discriminatory or abusive working environment. The court explained that there are four factors to consider in determining whether conduct is severe or pervasive enough to permeate a workplace:

  • The frequency of the conduct
  • The severity of the conduct
  • Whether the conduct is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance
  • Whether the conduct unreasonably interferes with the employee’s job performance

On balance, the court found that Patterson’s conduct over the two-year period, which was described in the opinion as hardly “boss of the year” material, was not sufficiently severe or pervasive. Accordingly, the court granted summary judgment in favor of GCH.

The court went on to find that Peebles failed to establish a case of retaliation, and GCH’s reasons for terminating her employment were legitimate and had nothing to do with her complaints about Patterson.

Takeaways

So, what can we learn? GCH did a lot of things right and still ended up getting sued—but they won. Here are a few things that employers should consider when a harassment complaint (or something that could be a harassment complaint) arises:

  • Effectively manage the complaints immediately. As soon as Peebles made complaints about Patterson, GCH addressed them, going so far as to designate a board member as a contact. GCH did this even though at least some of Peebles’ concerns were about bad behavior that did not clearly fall in the sexual harassment realm.
  • Take steps to stop any alleged harassment. In addition to a complaint procedure, GCH offered Peebles a transfer so she would not have to work with Patterson. While this is not always appropriate, employers should consider whether it is a viable option. You would not want to involuntarily transfer someone who complained, but giving them the option of getting away from the alleged harasser may be a good option to retain an employee and prevent a retaliation complaint. Of course, that is not what happened in this case, but it is still a good idea.
  • Don’t limit the assessment to the legal standard. Although the court relied on whether the behavior was sufficiently severe and pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment, employers should not limit their internal assessment to this legal standard. Behavior may not rise to the level of legal harassment but it can still violate a company’s harassment policy.

Voluntarily Sharing Family’s Cancer History Bars GINA Claims, Court HoldsGINA—that elusive law about employers collecting genetic information that rarely comes up. What if an employee voluntarily shares his genetic history—can he turn around and claim his employer improperly acquired the genetic information? Fortunately, in Williams v. Graphic Packaging International, Inc., the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, provides some guidance and says no.

GINA Refresher

The Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA) prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against an employee on the basis of “genetic information.” Under GINA, it is “an unlawful employment practice” for an employer to “request, require, or purchase genetic information” concerning an employee or an employee’s family member (unless an exception applies). If an employee voluntarily discloses his family’s medical history, then the employer arguably did not violate GINA because it did not request, require, or purchase the genetic information.

The Williams Case

Williams was diagnosed with prostate cancer and requested medical leave from his supervisor. He claimed that his supervisor “repeatedly questioned” him about his cancer, the doctor’s opinions concerning his cancer, and the treatment options. During at least one communication, Williams told his supervisor that cancer ran in his family.

Graphic Packaging later terminated Williams, and he filed suit, bringing multiple claims including that it violated GINA because the company became aware of his family’s medical history with cancer. Graphic Packaging moved for summary judgment, and in May 2018, the court granted its motion and dismissed the case in its entirety.

In dismissing the GINA claim, the court held that because Williams voluntarily informed his supervisor (and two other people) that cancer ran in his family, his GINA claim failed. Furthermore, the court noted that Graphic Packaging never required him or any of his family members to submit to a genetic test. Williams has since appealed the dismissal of his case to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Takeaways

Although Graphic Packaging was ultimately successful in Williams (at least pending the results of the appeal), employers should not forget about GINA. Among other prohibitions, the act bars employers from discriminating against an employee based on an employee’s genetic information. It also prohibits employers from requesting, requiring, or purchasing an employee’s or family members’ genetic information, unless one of the statute’s expressed exceptions applies. Those exceptions include when an employer inadvertently requests or requires an employee to provide his or her medical history or family medical history. If an employee voluntarily discloses that medical history, however, the employer can successfully argue – as it did in Williams – that it did not request or require the disclosure of the family’s medical history, inadvertently or otherwise, and that the GINA claim should be dismissed. It is probably safest, however, to train supervisors to not ask about an employee’s medical condition (to comply with the ADA) and also avoid asking about things such as family medical history (to comply with GINA).

The More You Know…Or Others Think You Know: Fifth Circuit Finds Decision-maker Had Knowledge to Constitute RetaliationThe Fifth Circuit has issued another opinion in the continuing saga of Jackson State University and its past athletic director, Dr. Vivian Fuller—this one about retaliation against a witness. To refresh everyone’s memory: A secretary at JSU filed an EEOC charge claiming that AD Fuller sexually harassed her and then fired her. During its investigation, JSU’s attorneys and the EEOC interviewed Fred Robinson, the Director of Sports Medicine, who witnessed some of the AD’s actions. A month after those interviews, AD Fuller terminated Robinson. He felt it was retaliation for his testimony; JSU said it was due to a reorganization of the athletic department and issues with Robinson’s daily availability.

The District Court Case and Verdict

Robinson sued JSU alleging retaliation under Title VII and the First Amendment. The case went to trial and the two big questions were: 1) Did Dr. Fuller actually know that the EEOC interviewed Robinson, and 2) were the reasons for Robinson’s termination simply pretext for retaliation? At trial, Dr. Fuller denied any knowledge of Robinson’s interviews. Without direct evidence, Robinson offered circumstantial evidence including: 1) He was fired not long after his EEOC interview; 2) JSU’s own attorneys knew about the interview and met with Fuller after the interview; 3) Dr. Fuller started avoiding him after the interview; and 4) JSU’s president had threatened to fire anyone who was against the AD (pretty strong one, there). JSU countered by claiming that Dr. Fuller had already decided to fire Robinson before the interview even occurred and also came up with some other incidents.

The jury sided with Robinson and awarded him just over $30,000 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages. JSU moved to set aside the verdict claiming that there was insufficient evidence to show that the decision-maker, Dr. Fuller, had actual knowledge of Robinson’s EEOC interview, so she could not have retaliated against him for it. The court agreed with JSU and overturned the verdict. Robinson appealed.

What the Fifth Circuit Said

The Fifth Circuit narrowed the issue to whether there was legally sufficient evidence that Robinson’s EEOC interview (the protected activity) caused his termination (the adverse employment action). If Dr. Fuller had no knowledge of the protected activity, the termination could not be retaliation. The court noted that direct proof that a decision-maker had knowledge could be “elusive” — almost all of the people being accused of retaliating are going to feign ignorance of anything that could have given them a motive. For example, “I had no idea that Suzie had reported our slippery floors to OSHA! I terminated her only because we no longer needed an accountant.”

In the Fifth Circuit (Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas), for a successful retaliation claim you have to show that the actual decision-maker had knowledge — not just that the corporation had constructive knowledge (as it is in other federal circuits). In this case, JSU argued that all of Robinson’s evidence was merely speculative. However, as the Fifth Circuit noted, it obviously was enough for the jury. The indirect and circumstantial evidence, such as the president’s threat to fire anyone who opposed the AD and the JSU’s attorneys meeting with the AD after the EEOC’s interview with Robinson, were, according to the Court, the “prototypical circumstantial indicators of decision-maker knowledge.” In regular speak, it was enough to convince the jury, and ultimately the Fifth Circuit, that Dr. Fuller knew about Robinson’s interview, despite her denials. The Fifth Circuit reversed the lower court’s striking of the verdict.

What Does this Teach Us?

Just because you have a decision-maker who says he didn’t know about a complaint (or EEOC charge, OSHA report, ADA request, or whatever) before he terminated the complaining employee or one of her witnesses that may not get you off the retaliation hook. Before you pull the trigger, you need to look at all the circumstances surrounding the potential adverse employment decision. Is it close in time to the protected activity (e.g., complaint, testimony)? Who knows about the protected activity, and what access have they had to your decision-maker? Has your CEO or anyone else made any threats or other comments about the claim that could hurt down the road?

As we always say, retaliation can be tricky. You have to not only defend the complaint but also prevent the retaliation fallout. While filing a complaint doesn’t make an employee bulletproof, it should at least make the employer take a good look at any future decisions that may affect that person or his or her supporters.