Case Reminds Employers of the Importance of Conducting Prompt Internal Investigations!

Contributed by Jonathan Hoag

Once aware of workplace harassment, employers can avoid liability for its employees’ harassment if they take prompt and appropriate corrective action reasonably likely to prevent the harassment from recurring.  Employers are not required to successfully prevent subsequent harassment, but the action must be calculated to achieve that result. Prompt investigation into alleged harassment is the hallmark of reasonable corrective action. The following case is a great example.

Maetta Vance was the only African-American employee in her department at Ball State University.  She became subject to racially charged disputes with co-workers and began filing complaints in 2005 regarding her coworkers’ offensive conduct.  Her allegations included her coworkers’ use of racial epithets, references to the Ku Klux Klan, threats of physical harm, and other unprofessional conduct.

In 2006, Vance, unsatisfied with the responses from her employer, filed two complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging, among other things, a hostile work environment.  The EEOC issued a right to sue letter and she filed suit in federal court.  The district court ruled in favor of Ball State Universityand Vance appealed.

The 7th Circuit began its analysis by determining if the alleged harassment was perpetrated by supervisors or coworkers.  The 7th Circuit noted that employers are strictly liable for harassment by a supervisor, but the employer may assert an affirmative defense when the harassment does not result in a tangible employment action.  If the harassment is from coworkers, the employer is only liable if the employee can establish that the employer was negligent in discovering or remedying the harassment.  While Vance attempted to allege that some of the harassment stemmed from supervisors, the court rejected Vance’s assertions and focused on whether Ball State University properly responded to Vance’s complaints.  The court found school’s prompt action to investigate Vance’s numerous complaints to be key in upholding the district court’s ruling in their favor.

The court determined that within a two-year period, Vance filed multiple complaints involving negative encounters with coworkers and that the school had investigated each and every complaint with the same vigor and calibrated its response and action based on the results of its investigation.  Additionally, Ball State took appropriate disciplinary action when it substantiated the allegations set forth in one of Vance’s complaints.  It was equally important that Ball State thoroughly reviewed each complaint and, even when it could not substantiate the alleged conduct, the school still counseled all parties involved about the importance of civility in the workplace.

Ball State University took reasonable corrective action because it did not begin to ignore Vance’s complaints, nor did it begin to accept simple denials from the accused parties.  Instead, the school investigated each and every complaint in the same thorough manner.  As such, the court concluded that there was no basis for employer liability.

This case provides a reminder to employers of the importance of conducting a prompt and thorough investigation upon notice or awareness of workplace harassment, no matter how incredible the allegations may seem on the surface.  In addition, to fully protect against liability for coworker harassment, employers should document the investigation and take some form of corrective action to appropriately respond and address the information obtained from the investigation.