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Respond quickly and effectively to harassment, discrimination complaints


Employers need to respond swiftly when employees complain about discrimination or harassment and the response must be effective, a U.S. District appeals court has held.

When a company addresses workplace it is responsible for ensuring that its solution will stave off further harassment or discrimination, a court of appeals has held in a case of a father and son who were eventually fired after complaining about harassment.

The case illustrates the need for an employer to not only act swiftly to respond and investigate claims of harassment or discrimination, but also to ensure that any remedies that are put in place are effective. Barring that and if the harassment or discrimination resumes, an employer could be opening itself up to a possible lawsuit.

In the case of Efrain Reynaga v. Roseburg Forest Products, the 9th District Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Hispanic millwright’s discrimination case against his former employer should go to trial and the court overturned a motion for summary judgment.

 

What happened

The case involved a father and son who worked as millwrights for Roseburg Forest Products and they were reportedly the only Hispanics working at the site.

The father claims they were regularly subjected to verbal abuse and derogatory comments from the lead millwright and harassed them, including comments like “minorities are taking over the country” and asking if “all Mexican women are fat.”

They also say they were regularly assigned dirtier, harder and more dangerous jobs than their white counterparts. When hostile work environment worsened, the father complained.

The company took action and rearranged the supervisor’s schedule so that he would not work the same shifts as the father and son.

But one day when they showed up to their shift, their old supervisor was there they immediately left the premises. They told their new supervisor they would not work with their old boss and they were promptly suspended and the father was later fired.

Reynaga sued Roseburg for hostile work environment, disparate treatment, and retaliation. The lower court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment and threw out the case, but the appeal’s court decision reversed that decision, which means the case can go to trial.

 

The decision and why it’s important

The appellate court, in making its decision, said that a jury could find the termination retaliatory, saying that the termination for missing one-and-a-half shifts was widely out of proportion to the company’s “benign treatment of [the supervisor].”

“Efrain’s prima facie case is strong, particularly in light of the timing of the termination. Efrain had worked at Roseburg for more than five years, yet he was fired barely one month after making a formal written complaint. Proof of a causal link between Efrain’s complaint and his termination-as evidenced by temporal proximity-is certainly relevant to an evaluation of pretext.”

 

The takeaway

If you have had an employee legitimately complain about a hostile work environment, harassment and discrimination, you should:

  • Move quickly to investigate and address the issue if you find the complaint to be valid.
  • Ensure that the action you take is effective.
  • Don’t retaliate against employees for complaining about harassment or discrimination.

 

Remember, harassment and discrimination cases that go to trial can be costly in terms of litigation expenses, but also any potential judgments and penalties. The final level of protection is employment practices liability insurance.

Talk to us if you want to know more about this coverage.