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Employer’s Swift and Harsh Actions Defeat Harassment Claim

It is unfortunately no surprise that people do stupid things.  Some people do inexcusable things.  And sometimes those things amount to racial discrimination and harassment.  A recent decision from a federal court in Texas demonstrates the importance for employers to take prompt action to address discriminatory behavior in the workplace.  Such responses are the right thing to do and can also help employers avoid liability under anti-discrimination laws.  Jones v. Tubal-Cain Hydraulic Solutions, Inc., No. 4:16-cv-1282 (S.D. Tex. Jan. 3, 2020).

The plaintiff is a former employee of Tubal-Cain Hydraulics Solutions (the “Company”) who was hired as a leadman hydraulic mechanic in February 2012.  The trial evidence showed that the plaintiff was subjected to racial harassment during the first few months of his employment with the Company.  His colleagues repeatedly used the N-word, referred to the plaintiff as “boy,” and “disregarded his authority as a leadman due to his race.”  At one point, someone drew a stick figure hanging from a noose on a white board with the plaintiff’s name written underneath.

The first individual the plaintiff reported the incidents to did not respond or take action to address the behavior.  The plaintiff also reported the noose incident to the Company’s technical services director.  After a prompt investigation, the Company took action against the three employees who were involved.  One employee was fired, one was designated as ineligible for rehire (he had recently quit), and the employee who did not properly respond to the plaintiff’s initial reports was also fired.  Plaintiff was aware of these personnel actions.

The plaintiff alleged that there was a second noose incident and that his tire was slashed.  There was conflicting evidence regarding these additional incidents and the plaintiff did not report them to the Company.  While the Company did not dispute the first set of incidents, it did question the second set of allegations.  At trial, it became clear that the plaintiff was viewed as a valuable employee, however, he had a tendency to “stretch[]the truth.”  As the court summarized:

[Employee’s] time at Hydraulic Solutions (and after) was marred by incidents that cast some doubt on his reliability as a witness.  Early in his time at the company, [Employee] called in to work asking for time off claiming his brother was killed in a drive-by shooting.  In reality, it was a close friend who had died, and he died not by shooting but by car accident.  In mid-June, [Employee] again called in to work asking for time off, this time stating his two children had been in a car accident.  In reality, only one of his children had been in the car accident, as the second passenger was his nephew.  In both situations, [Employees’] actions can be characterized as a stretching of the truth to engender sympathy.

The plaintiff even admitted at trial that he had lied under oath.  The plaintiff stopped working for the Company on June 29.

The parties agreed on much of the underlying facts, including that inappropriate racially motivated actions occurred.  The issues at trial, therefore, included whether the plaintiff was harassed by a supervisor and the degree of the harassment.  Assessing the plaintiff’s claims of racial harassment and constructive discharge, the court concluded that the actions toward the plaintiff were “inexcusable,” but were not “so severe and pervasive as to create a work atmosphere in which a reasonable party in his shoes would have felt compelled to resign, given the immediate actions taken by [the Company].”  “Indeed, all actions by [the Company] demonstrate that [the plaintiff] was a highly valued employee and that they not only took immediate action but also were willing to take appropriate action to root out any racial harassment.”

The court concluded that the plaintiff was a member of a protected class, was subjected to unwelcome, race-based harassment, and that the harassment affected a term, condition, or privilege of employment.  The issue was whether the Company knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take prompt remedial action.  The court found that the individual the plaintiff initially reported the conduct to was not a supervisor.  When the harassment reached the supervisory level, however, “the company took swift and harsh action in response to the perpetrators,” which enabled the company to escape liability.

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