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Court Finds Victim’s Verbal Sexual Harassment Complaint Satisfies Company Policy Requiring The Filing Of A Sexual Harassment Complaint

Cartoon image of boss harassing his employee

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), employers are liable for sexual harassment which is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment. As explained by the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Dees v. Johnson Controls World Services, Inc., 163 F.3d 417 (11th Cir. 1999), “the employer’s notice of the harassment is of paramount importance” because an employer’s liability for sexual harassment is generally linked to its actual or constructive knowledge of the harassment.  Under well-established law, when an employer knows or should know that an employee is being subjected to sexually harassing behavior, the employer must take prompt and effective remedial action that is reasonably calculated to end the sexual harassment.  When an employer knows or should know about the harassment and fails to take prompt and effective remedial action that ends the harassment, the employer is liable for the past harassment and any future harassment.

Having long represented victims of sexual harassment, our Central Florida sexual harassment lawyers have learned that employers frequently defend sexual harassment lawsuits by claiming they had no knowledge of the sexual harassment because the victim did not comply with their complaint procedure for reporting sexual harassment.  Under such circumstances, employers maintain that they cannot be held liable for sexual harassment they never knew about.  In advancing such arguments, employers often conjure up hyper-technical and fanciful interpretations of their complaint procedure for reporting sexual harassment in order to deny knowledge and avoid liability.  The recent decision by the U.S. District Court for Puerto Rico in Vazquez v. One Inc., 2017 WL 3995556 (D. P.R. Sept. 11, 2017) illustrates that courts recognize there is often more than one reasonable way to interpret an employer’s complaint procedure for reporting sexual harassment. 

Company Policy Requires Employees To File A Complaint   

In that case, Frances Mendez Vazquez (Vazquez) brought a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit under Title VII against One Inc., d/b/a The Wings Family Restaurant (Restaurant).  Vazquez was employed by the Restaurant as a server.  Vazquez claimed that she was sexually harassed during her employment by her supervisor.  According to Vazquez, the supervisor’s sexually harassing behavior included sexual comments, remarks about her body, rubbing his penis against her, and touching her intimate body parts. 

During her employment, Vazquez received a copy of the Restaurant’s sexual harassment policy.  The Restaurant’s sexual harassment policy provided, in relevant part, that when employees believe they have been sexually harassed at work, they must “file a complaint” with the human resources officer.   Vazquez alleged that she made verbal complaints about the supervisor’s sexual behavior to the Restaurant’s owner and human resources director.  Vazquez claimed that the owner responded to her complaints by telling her “that it was [Vazquez], that it wasn’t him, that that was the way he was, to continue her work.”  Vazquez maintained that supervisor’s sexual harassment continued unabated in its frequency and severity despite her complaints. 

  The Restaurant filed a motion with the trial court seeking dismissal of Vazquez’s sexual harassment claim.  In doing so, the Restaurant asked the trial court to find that Vazquez’s claim failed as a matter of law and Vazquez could not present her claim to a jury for resolution.  The trial court denied the Restaurant’s motion for dismissal and held that Vazquez’s must be decided by a jury at trial.

Victim’s Verbal Complaints Satisfy Duty To File A Complaint

In seeking dismissal of Vazquez’s sexual harassment claim, the Restaurant claimed that the only notification it ever received regarding the sexual harassment of Vazquez was notification by the Puerto Rican Police Department informing the Restaurant that it had received a complaint from Vazquez.  The Restaurant further argued that Vazquez’s verbal complaints to the owner and human resources director did not provide it with notice of the sexual harassment because the Restaurant’s complaint procedure for reporting sexual harassment required employees to “file” complaints with the human resources officer. 

In rejecting the Restaurant’s argument that it did not have notice of the supervisor’s sexual harassment against Vazquez because she was required to “file” a complaint with the human resources director, the trial court explained that although the word “file” usually means a written document, “there is more than one reasonable way to interpret this clause.”  The trial court determined that a “reasonable jury could find that [Vazquez] met her duty to ‘file’ a complaint by submitting verbal complaints.”  The trial court also found that it was not unreasonable for Vazquez “to channel the bulk of her verbal complaints” through the Restaurant’s owner.  This is so, the trial court pointed out, because “when a supervisor’s behavior is at issue, an employee need only make reasonable use of the reporting procedures provided by her employer[.]”  Thus, the trial court concluded, because there was evidence that the Restaurant “took no corrective action in spite of repeatedly receiving complaints of sexual harassment,” Vazquez was entitled to present her sexual harassment claim to a jury for resolution.       

Free Consultation With Ocala Sexual Harassment Lawyers   

Based in Ocala, Florida and representing employees throughout Central Florida, we have substantial experience representing victims of sexual harassment in the workplace.  If you have experienced sexual harassment at work or have questions about your employer’s complaint procedure for reporting sexual harassment, please contact our office for a free consultation with our Central Florida sexual harassment attorneys.  Our employee rights law firm takes 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. 

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