By Linda Schoonmaker and Kyle Winnick
Seyfarth Synopsis: The Fifth Circuit dismissed a plaintiff’s harassment claims because the employer took prompt action to stop the harassment and prevent it from continuing. This case highlights the importance for employers to have effective harassment policies and procedures in place.
Acting promptly to remedy discrimination in the workplace is not just good management, it may avert legal liability. In Hudson v. Lincare, Inc., the plaintiff claimed that she was subjected to racial harassment by her former employer in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and Texas antidiscrimination law. During a meeting, two of plaintiff’s co-workers directed racial epithets and profane language at her. A manager “promptly” informed human resources (HR) of the incident, and HR “launched an investigation immediately.” “Within five days, HR sent written warnings” to the co-workers “that they would be fired if they used similar language again.” Before issuing the final warnings, HR also investigated another racial epithet spoken by one of the co-workers outside the presence of the plaintiff “as soon as it was reported.”
The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim (as well as a retaliation claim), and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The Fifth Circuit began by observing that an employer will not be liable for harassment by a co-worker, as opposed to a supervisor, if it takes “prompt remedial action” that is “reasonably calculated to end the harassment.” The Court found that the record showed the defendant-employer took such actions.
Specifically, the Court noted that the plaintiff’s manager reported the racial epithets she heard “to HR that very day,” “[a]n investigation ensued, and only five days later, [the employer] issued final written warnings to [the plaintiff’s co-workers].” In other words, the defendant “took the allegations seriously, it conducted prompt and thorough investigations, and it immediately implemented remedial and disciplinary measures based on the results of such investigations.” Accordingly, because of the manager’s and HR’s swift actions, the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim failed as a matter of law.
TAKEAWAYS The case turned on the prompt and effective response to the harassing conduct: the manager reported the discriminatory incidents immediately, HR quickly began an investigation, and the offenders were meaningfully disciplined. Employers should therefore confirm that they have sound policies and practices facilitating the prompt reporting of alleged harassment in the workplace and their HR departments are well trained in investigating and addressing such reports.