Can Sexual Harassment Victims Still Bring A Lawsuit When HR Finds Their Complaint Unsubstantiated?
Having represented sexual harassment victims for more than two decades, our Marion County, Florida sexual harassment attorneys know that the rights of many sexual harassment victims are trampled and ultimately forsaken by an employer’s purported investigation of their sexual harassment complaints. In far too many cases, our Ocala, Florida sexual harassment lawyers have learned, employers fail or refuse to conduct reasonable, good faith investigations in response to complaints lodged by sexual harassment victims. Instead, employers’ sexual harassment investigations are often conducted in bad faith and premised on reaching a pre-determined conclusion that no sexual harassment occurred.
Bad Faith Sexual Harassment Investigations
A common bad faith tactic used by employers and their human resources representatives is to ascribe an ostensibly benign motivation to the sexual harasser, such as the sexual harasser was only joking, did not intend to be offensive, or was unaware that the behavior was unwelcome. In doing so, employers and their human resources representatives will also try to get sexual harassment victims to agree with their assessment of the sexual harasser’s ostensibly benign motivation. In other words, sexual harassment investigations seek to extract admissions from sexual harassment victims that can be used against them not only in the findings of the investigation, but also in any subsequent sexual harassment lawsuit. Thus, employers and their human resources representatives often do not conduct sexual harassment investigations for the purpose of remedying the harassment and protecting sexual harassment victims, but for the purpose of deceptively obtaining information that will be used against sexual harassment victims.
In this article, our Marion County, Florida sexual harassment attorneys explain how the alleged facts in a recent sexual harassment lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) demonstrates that sexual harassment victims should not be dissuaded from fighting for their legal rights and pursuing their available legal remedies simply because an employer’s investigation concludes that their sexual harassment complaint was unsubstantiated or meritless.
Sexual Harassment Lawsuit
In a press release issued on April 21, 2021, the EEOC announced that it has filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Albuquerque-AMG Specialty Hospital, LLC and Acardiana Management Group, LLC, operating as AMG Specialty Hospital, LLC (AMG). On April 21, 2021, the EEOC filed the sexual harassment case, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Albuquerque-AMG Specialty Hospital, LLC and Acardiana Management Group, LLC, Case No. 1:21-cv-00363, in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico.
The EEOC has filed the sexual harassment lawsuit pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) on behalf of a former employee of AMG, Moriah Smith (Smith). Under Title VII, employees are protected from sexual harassment in the workplace. To constitute a violation of Title VII, sexual harassment must be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create a hostile work environment. The EEOC claims that AMG violated Title VII by requiring Smith to work in a sexually hostile work environment.
Duty To Investigate Sexual Harassment Complaints
Once an employer knows or should know of sexual harassment in the workplace, the employer is required by Title VII to take prompt and effective remedial measures to stop the harassment and prevent recurrence of the harassment. Generally, employers acquire actual knowledge of sexual harassment in the workplace through a complaint by the victim. As the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals explained in Swenson v. Potter, 271 F.3d 1184 (9th Cir. 2001), “the most significant immediate measure an employer can take in response to a sexual harassment complaint is to launch a prompt investigation to determine whether the complaint is justified.” “By opening a sexual harassment investigation,” the Swenson court reasoned, “the employer puts all employees on notice that it takes such allegations seriously and will not tolerate harassment in the workplace.” However, the Swenson court determined, “an investigation that is rigged to reach a pre-determined conclusion or otherwise conducted in bad faith will not satisfy the employer’s remedial obligation.” Thus, an employer’s failure to conduct a reasonable, good faith investigation is a basis for holding the employer liable for sexual harassment in the workplace.
Employee Claims Workplace Sexual Misconduct
In July 2017, Smith began working AMG. Starting in 2018, according to the EEOC, Smith was subjected to egregious sexual harassment by AMG’s Chief Clinical Officer (CCO). The EEOC alleges that the CCO’s unwelcome sexual behavior towards Smith included touching her breasts and buttocks, making remarks about her breasts and buttocks, requesting that she touch his penis, and placing her hand on his penis. The EEOC further alleges that the CCO sent Smith sexually inappropriate text messages, including a message stating “I want to see whats under that hot dress.”
On August 21, 2019, Smith met with AMG’s CEO and complained about the unwanted sexually harassing behavior. During the meeting, according to the EEOC, the CEO apologized and told Smith that he was aware of the CCO’s past inappropriate behavior. After this meeting, the CEO reported Smith’s complaint to an HR representative. The CEO also instructed Smith to meet with the HR representative and to provide him with details of her sexual harassment complaint against the CCO.
HR “Took Word” Of Sexual Harasser
Later than same day on August 21, 2019, the HR representative met with Smith to discuss her complaint and asked to see the text messages between her and the CCO. As part of his investigation, the HR representative took copies of the text messages off Smith’s cell phone. On August 26, 2019, the HR representative met with Smith to discuss the findings of the four-day sexual harassment investigation. The HR representative told Smith that they were not able to substantiate Smith’s sexual harassment complaint and the matter had been closed. At the conclusion of the meeting with Smith on August 26, 2019, the HR representative also provided Smith with a dress code policy with a section of the policy being highlighted on how to dress for work. In doing so, Smith believed that the HR representative implied that she dressed inappropriately for work and how she dressed was the reason she had been sexually harassed by the CCO.
At no time during the meeting of August 26, 2019, according to the EEOC, did the HR representative inform Smith that the CCO was being disciplined due to anything learned in the investigation. Thus, the EEOC maintains that AMG took the word of a sexual harasser over the word of a sexual harassment victim despite evidence of the sexually explicit text messages. Unknown to Smith on August 26, 2019, AMG only issued discipline to the CCO for “unprofessional conduct,” “perceived aggression,” and “failure as a leader to assure a non-hostile work environment.” Ultimately, the EEOC maintains, Smith was compelled to quit on September 6, 2019 due to intolerable working conditions imposed on her by AMG.
Lawyers For Sexual Harassment Victims
The EEOC is the administrative agency of the federal government responsible for interpreting and enforcing the federal employment laws prohibiting discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. As part of its efforts to preserve and protect the rights of sexual harassment victims, the EEOC brings lawsuits in federal court on behalf of employees who have been required to work in a sexually hostile work environment.
In a press release issued by the EEOC on April 21, 2021 regarding the case, a regional attorney for the EEOC’s Phoenix District Office, Mary Jo O’Neill, explained that “employers are responsible for preventing and remedying sexual harassment of their employees.” “Employers will be held responsible,” Ms. O’Neill added, “when they do not protect employees from harassment and when they fail to conduct appropriate investigations.” In commenting on the case, the Director of the EEOC’s Phoenix District Office, Elizabeth Cadle, observed that “employers must take complaints of sexual harassment seriously, investigate them thoroughly, and make sure that the employees who bring EEO complaints feel safe after reporting the harassing conduct.”
Marion County, FL Sexual Harassment Attorneys
Based in Ocala, Florida and representing workers in counties throughout Central Florida, our Ocala, Florida sexual harassment lawyers have dedicated their practice to representing sexual harassment victims. If you have endured sexual harassment in the workplace or have questions about your protection from sexual harassment under federal employment discrimination law, please contact our office for a free consultation with our Marion County, Florida sexual harassment attorneys. Our employment and labor law attorneys take sexual harassment cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.