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Beware Acting on Complaints without Proper Investigation

Published:  June 20, 2014

The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently held in Valazquez-Perez v. Developers Diversified Realty corp. that an employer can be liable for sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) for terminating an employee because of criticisms of a spurned co-worker intent on revenge, even though the employee was not the Plaintiff’s supervisor.

According to the plaintiff in this case, he and a female co-worker enjoyed a flirtatious working relationship for almost a year. However, when the co-worker attempted to initiate a romantic relationship during a business trip, the plaintiff rejected her advances. At this time the co-worker began to harass him, threaten to have him fired, send angry and suggestive emails, criticize him to his supervisors, and provided a detailed memorandum of her complaints and recommendation that he be terminated to company officials. During this time, the plaintiff complained about his co-worker’s actions to his supervisor who responded by instructing him to send her a “conciliatory email” because if he did not she was going to get him terminated. The plaintiff’s supervisor also jokingly suggested that the plaintiff should have sex with the jilted co-worker. Soon after, the plaintiff was terminated for absenteeism, failure to report, and unsatisfactory performance.

The plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging sex discrimination and hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. The Federal District Court granted summary judgment against the plaintiff and he appealed. The First Circuit found that the employer could be liable under Title VII for allowing the female co-worker’s discriminatory acts to cause the plaintiff’s termination. The First Circuit stated an employer “should be liable if it fires the victim based on complaints that it knew (or reasonably should have known) were the product of discriminatory animus.”

This case serves as a reminder to employers to carefully investigate all claims by employees before taking adverse action to ensure that discriminatory animus doesn’t impact an employer’s decision. To prevent similar claims employers should properly investigate all complaints and properly train all supervisors in how to handle employee complaints.

If you have any questions regarding sex discrimination and hostile work environment harassment, please contact any of the attorneys at Royal LLP at (413) 586-2288.