Company on the Hook for $1.5 Million After Ignoring Sexual Harassment
Terminated employees sued for retaliation
Usually when there’s a problem at work, you complain to your boss.
But what if your boss is the problem?
A recent court case illustrates just what can happen when a supervisor believes that company rules don’t apply to him – and then tries to silence employees who protest his bad behavior.
The One in Charge
Tiffany Pete and Christopher Partee worked as temporary employees for New Breed Logistics.
Because they weren’t considered staff, they didn’t receive training on company policies and procedures. They also didn’t receive company handbooks that spelled out procedures for making formal complaints.
With close to 80% of the employees deemed “temporary,” supervisors in certain areas had a significant amount of power to hire, fire, and discipline workers as they saw fit.
Supervisor James Calhoun knew that – and he made it very clear that anyone who complained about him was going to lose their job.
With that mentality, Calhoun felt free to use the workplace to openly discuss his sexual desires. He made sexually suggestive comments to the female members of the workforce several times a day, every day. He sometimes even went so far as to press his body against the women’s backs when they didn’t expect it.
Complaints Fell on Deaf Ears
The women told him to stop – sometimes in rather forceful terms – but nothing changed.
Pete overheard a group of women discussing plans to secretly record Calhoun’s inappropriate remarks. She warned him that he should curb his behavior before he got into trouble. Calhoun laughed at the suggestion. He told Pete that he ran the area and that anyone who went to HR would be fired.
Partee often witnessed Calhoun making inappropriate comments to women. He also warned Calhoun to stop because the women didn’t like it. Calhoun replied that he was just messing around and didn’t mean anything by it.
Several other employees protested Calhoun’s behavior as well. Pete even found the number for the company complaint hotline and left an anonymous message.
An HR representative investigated the complaint by asking Calhoun if the allegations were true. He said no.
Not long after that, Pete, Partee, and the others who complained were fired by Calhoun (directly or indirectly) for reasons such as attendance problems, rule violations, or timekeeping errors.
The terminated employees complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which sued on their behalf. The agency claimed that the employees were fired for engaging in the protected activity of opposing sexual harassment.
The company argued that it couldn’t have retaliated against the employees because it didn’t know about the harassment. That is, simply telling the harasser to stop wasn’t enough to put the company on notice that there was a problem.
But the court didn’t buy that argument. Rather, it pointed out that companies are vicariously liable for addressing complaints once supervisors have notice of them. So even though the employees were complaining to the supervisor about his own conduct, the company was still on the hook for addressing the problems.
The court also stated that the company failed to make a good-faith effort to investigate the complaint from the company hotline.
The company was forced to pay compensatory and punitive damages of $1.5 million to its former staffers.
(The case discussed here is EEOC v. New Breed Logistics.)
What It Means to You
If you’ve been fired or have suffered an adverse employment action, such as a demotion, a pay cut, or a transfer to an undesirable shift after making a complaint, you should speak with a lawyer.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (267) 273-1054 for a free consultation.