Prompt Investigation Helps Employer Avoid Liability On Harassment Claim

In a recent decision from a Mississippi federal court, Nissan avoided liability on a former employee’s sexual harassment claim because she could not show that her employer acted negligently in responding to her complaints.  Davenport v. Nissan N. Am., Inc., No. 3:14-CV-00671-CWR-LRA (S.D. Miss. Oct. 22, 2015).

From August 2012 until January 2014, Joslyne Davenport worked as a production associate at a Nissan manufacturing plant in Canton, Mississippi.  When hired, Davenport received and read an employee handbook setting forth policies and procedures governing her employment at the Nissan plant (Davenport was actually employed by Kelly Services, Inc. at the plant).

In September 2013, Nissan hired a male line leader who was required to pass training courses, including training on Nissan’s anti-harassment policy.  The leader and Davenport worked together on the third shift.  Both individuals reported to a supervisor.

Davenport alleged that, shortly after the line leader came on board, he exposed his genitals to her.  Davenport told a co-worker of the incident, and that co-worker asked the line leader about what transpired.  The line leader responded:  “Davenport was not supposed to tell anyone.”  Davenport did not tell the supervisor or anyone else about the incident.

Davenport and the line leader worked together for two more months, until mid-December, when Davenport told another colleague about what happened with the line leader.  That employee reported the incident to Nissan’s and Kelly Services’ human resources departments.

In addition to the indecent exposure, Davenport alleged that the line leader made sexual references during conversations for the two months after the incident, including displaying photos of his genitals in the presence of other employees.  After learning of the incident, the defendants immediately investigated.  The plant closed for the holidays on December 21 and reopened on January 6.  The defendants continued their investigation when the plant reopened.

While Davenport alleged in her complaint that the sexual conversations continued after December 20, she did not report that subsequent behavior until January 13, 2014.  When Davenport returned to work after the holiday break, Nissan reassigned her to another area with a different line leader and supervisor.  She says her former supervisors glared at her.  Davenport resigned on January 14.  Nissan continued to investigate, but did not confirm the indecent exposure.  The company discovered other misconduct, however, and the line leader was terminated February 5.

In support of its motion for summary judgment, Nissan cited case law holding that “exposure of genitalia coupled with sexually suggestive comments was not sufficient to satisfy” the severe or pervasive requirement of a prima facie harassment case.  Nissan’s argument was a one-time indecent exposure does not amount to an actionable harassment claim.

In granting the motion, the court focused on the sequence of events.  The incident with the line leader occurred in September or October 2013, and Davenport did not report it until December.  Critically, Nissan and Kelly investigated the complaint, which is “the hallmark of reasonable corrective action.”  And, they reassigned Davenport to a different line leader and supervisor.  “Her delay in reporting the incident prevented defendants from conducting an investigation more quickly.”  Here, Nissan’s quick action — the investigation — and corrective action helped the company avoid liability.

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