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  • Employers Can be Liable For Acts of Anonymous Harassers

    A recent federal court case emphasized an important lesson for all companies to consider: employers are under an obligation to investigate employee complaints of a hostile work environment even if the identity of the harasser is unknown. Failure to investigate all good faith complaints of harassment can result in serious liability for the employer.

    In Pryor v. United Air Lines, Inc., the plaintiff, an African-American flight attendant, complained to her employer, United, after she found a note in her company mailbox with a drawing depicting a person hanging from a noose with the “n-word” and other language describing the hunting and killing of African-Americans. The plaintiff immediately complained to her supervisor, but he did not escalate the complaint in the manner required by United’s Harassment and Discrimination Policy. Additionally, other supervisors also went against the policy’s reporting protocol, despite the seriousness of the allegations and other racist remarks concerning other African-American flight attendants. To make matters worse, when police tried to investigate, the supervisors were uncooperative and United closed the investigation without informing the plaintiff. As a result, she filed suit alleging hostile work environment in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.

    The district court considered all of the facts and concluded that the death threats were enough to create a hostile work environment. However, it ultimately granted summary judgment in favor of United because it found that there was no reason to believe that the harasser would have been found even if United had done a proper investigation. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (“Fourth Circuit”) disagreed with the district court’s findings and stated that “even if a diligent response may not have been successful, a company is not thereby excused for its lack of diligence.” The Fourth Circuit also found that a reasonable jury could conclude that United’s response was neither prompt nor reasonably calculated to end the harassment. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit vacated the summary judgment order and remanded the case back to the district court where a jury will now decide whether United may be held liable for the actions of the anonymous harasser.

    This decision highlights the responsibility of employers when it comes to complaints of discrimination and/or harassment. Employers should note that the anonymous nature of threats or acts of harassment against their employees does not lessen their responsibility to thoroughly investigate complaints and take prompt actions reasonably calculated to end the harassment. Failure to investigate properly can lead to a highly publicized and costly lawsuit as demonstrated by the one discussed above.

    If you or your institution has any questions or concerns regarding employment related issues, please email Cynthia A. Augello at caugello@cullenanddykman.com or call her at (516) 357-3753.

    A special thank you to Lauren Dwarika, a law clerk at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for her assistance with this blog post.