In an opinion issued this week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee) affirmed dismissal of a case alleging same-sex sexual harassment primarily based on the prompt and effective action taken by the employer in response to the plaintiff employee’s complaint.
Plaintiff (Hylko) and the alleged harasser (Hemphill) worked closely together at U.S. Steel. Hemphill trained Hylko and assigned his duties. Both reported to an area manager.
Hylko claimed that Hemphill harassed him as soon as they started working together, that Hemphill regularly asked Hylko about his sex life and that Hemphill grabbed his buttocks and private parts.
Hylko complained to management, who offered him a transfer to a different area of the plant, which he accepted. Management then met with Hemphill, who admitted some of the harassment. They then gave him a verbal warning, one week suspension and demotion to shift manager and made him take a leadership class. No harassment occurred again after that.
The standard for employer liability for hostile work environment harassment that does not result in a tangible adverse employment action depends typically on whether or not the harasser is the victim’s supervisor. An employer is vicariously liable for a hostile work environment created by a supervisor unless it can prove that (a) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any harassment; and (b) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise. By contrast, an employer is liable for hostile work environment harassment by employees who are not supervisors only if the alleged victim can prove the employer was “negligent in failing to prevent harassment from taking place.” In assessing such negligence, the court will look to such factors as the nature and degree of authority wielded by the harasser and evidence the employer did not monitor the workplace, failed to respond to complaints, failed to provide a system for registering complaints or effectively discouraged complaints from being filed. In essence, the supervisory status of the alleged results in a shifting of the burden of proof with respect to whether the employer has taken necessary steps to prevent and respond to allegations of harassment.