Monday, September 15, 2014

Employer’s Swift Response to Harassment Claims Provided Solid Defense for Employer

A recent decision from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals provides a good example of how employers should respond to complaints of harassment.  In Muhammad v. Caterpillar, Inc. decided on September 9, 2014, the plaintiff, Warnether Muhammad, alleged that his co-workers at  Caterpillar, Inc. created a hostile work environment by subjecting him to sexual and racial harassment.  Specifically, the plaintiff claimed that he was harassed with offensive comments and graffiti in the bathroom about his perceived sexual orientation and his race.

Importantly, the Seventh Circuit rejected the employee’s claim outright based on the evidence that Caterpillar reasonably responded to Muhammad’s complaint, relying on its earlier decision in Berry v. Chicago Transit Authority, 618 F. 3d 688 (7th Cir. 2010) (explaining that the employer cannot be liable if it “took prompt action that was reasonably likely to prevent a reoccurrence.”)  After Muhammad reported to Caterpillar his co-workers’ offensive comments and the company responded, only one of the co-workers made another similar remark.  However, Muhammad never reported that isolated statement.  To be clear, an employer is not liable for co-employee sexual harassment when a mechanism to report the harassment exists, but the employee fails to utilize it.  An aggrieved employee must at least report – clearly and directly –nonobvious policy violations troubling him so that supervisors may intervene.

As for the workplace graffiti, the court acknowledged that Caterpillar responded quickly each time Muhammad reported it, and it soon stopped the problem permanently.  The company responded quickly to have the offensive graffiti painted over and warned each co-worker on Muhammad’s line that Caterpillar would immediately fire any employee caught defacing the walls.  Muhammad conceded that the graffiti never reappeared after that warning.

However,  Muhammed insisted that Caterpillar should have done more to identify who was responsible for the graffiti and to punish all coworkers who harassed him. The court recognized that Title VII does not necessarily include disciplining the employees responsible for past conduct.  Rather, it noted that in assessing the corrective action, the courts focus not on whether the perpetrators were punished by the employer, but whether the employer took reasonable steps to prevent future harm.  Given that Caterpillar’s prompt response halted the harassment that Muhammad brought to its attention, the company was not liable under Title VII for not doing more to hunt down the guilty co-workers for punishment.

Muhammad also asserted a Title VII retaliation claim alleging he was subsequently suspended in retaliation for complaining about the harassment.  The Seventh Circuit rejected Muhammad’s retaliation claim because there was no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the employer’s actions were motivated by an improper purpose. Muhammad offered only speculation and did not provide any names, affidavits or other evidence that other employees  had engaged in similar conduct  and were not disciplined.