Great Policy; No Follow-Through

The best policy in the world won’t protect you without follow-through.

That’s the lesson of a decision by the Seventh Circuit  Court of Appeals  in a Wisconsin sexual harassment case, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Management Hospitality of Racine, Inc., et al., No. 10-3247 (Jan. 9, 2012,).

The defendant, a company owned by Salauddin Janmohammed  which operates 21 International House of Pancakes restaurants, had a “zero-tolerance”  anti-harassment policy in place, anti-harassment training, and a policy of investigations of complaints.

What it didn’t have was follow-through. Or, in the words of the Court, “the policy and complaint mechanism were not reasonably effective in practice.”

According to the Court:  “the presence of a sexual harassment policy is encouraged by Title VII [but] the mere creation of a sexual harassment policy will not shield a company from its responsibility to actively prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.”

The Court upheld an award of $105,000 to two teenage servers at an IHOP operated by the defendant in Racine.  Katrina Shisler and Michelle Powell said they were sexually harassed in 2004 and 2005 by an IHOP assistant manager in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq.

Normally, an employer can advance the so-called Faragher/Ellerth affirmative defense in a Title VII case sexual harassment claim involving a hostile work environment. This allows the employer to escape liability for damages if:

 (a) it “exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior,” and

 (b) “the plaintiff employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any protective or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise.”

The Court said the  Faragher/Ellerth affirmative defense was not available to the Management Hospitality because both teens had complained to managers about sexual harassment  and the managers did nothing.  The company did not begin investigating until a private investigator hired by an attorney for one of the teenager began asking questions.

The Court said a rational jury could have found that the sexual harassment occurred “every shift,”  was “highly offensive,” and included “physical touching.”

The Court said a rational jury also could conclude that the employer failed to follow its own policies by discouraging  employees from reporting complaints, providing inadequate anti-harassment training to supervisors, and failing to “promptly” investigate the complaints.

The EEOC filed suit on behalf of the two teenaged servers. A jury awarded one of the servers $1,000 in compensatory damages and the other $4,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages.

Target can have job, not $4.4 million

Here’s yet another case where a jury “got it” but the court did not.  Not only did the appeals court minimize the trauma of workplace abuse in its ruling but it did not hold the employer accountable for failing to halt workplace abuse. PGB

Court Overturns Jury Award

James McKelvey was an Army soldier in 2004 when he lost his right hand trying to defuse a roadside bomb in Iraq.

After recovering at a base in Germany and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, McKelvey moved back to Michigan, and in February 2006 accepted a civilian job with the army as an operations specialist first at Selfridge Air National Guard Base and eventually at the Detroit Arsenal.

There he became a target of verbal abuse regarding his injury by his supervisor and co-workers, and his supervisor either failed to give him work to do or gave him demeaning work assignments.

McKelvey quit on February 16, 2007 to take a non-military job in the local sheriff’s department, saying he had only stayed that long at the armory because he had a wife and child to support. He then filed a lawsuit alleging he was essentially fired – or constructively discharged – because of a hostile work environment stemming from discrimination because of his disability.

A Michigan federal court jury ruled for McKelvey on both claims but it awarded no damages on the hostile-work-environment claim.  Instead, the jury awarded McKelvey $4,388,302 in front pay on the constructive-discharge claim. Front pay is money awarded for lost compensation during the period between judgment and reinstatement, or if reinstatement is not feasible, instead of reinstatement.

The trial court judge immediately vacated the jury’s award, finding that it was not supported by law.

This week, an appellate court found that McKelvey was constructively discharged from his job at the armory but agreed with the trial court that the proper remedy is reinstatement and not the $4.4 million jury award. (See McKelvey v. Secretary of United States Army, No. 10-1172 (Dec. 14, 2011).

The appeals court said “reasonable minds” could find that McKelvey was constructively discharged from his job at the armory because “ … the crux of this claim turns on the harassment McKelvey endured. McKelvey presented evidence that (a supervisor and coworker) repeatedly called him, among other derogatory things, “all fucked up,” “a piece of shit,” “worthless,” and “a fucking cripple.” … Repeated over the course of nine months, this constant stream of invective could sustain a finding of constructive discharge.”

And yet, the appeals court said, the proper remedy in McKelvey’s case is reinstatement. The court said the $4.4 million award of front pay was too “speculative” for a relatively young man of 38 years old and any trauma McKelvey might experience by returning to the job would be mitigated by the fact that he would have different supervisors and four of his six co-workers would be new, with no connection to the prior harassment.

The  Army had argued that McKelvey could not claim constructive discharge because conditions had improved two months before he quit. According to the appeals court,“This gap is too short for us to say as a matter of law that McKelvey’s workplace was no longer intolerable, and is shorter than the gaps in cases where an employee’s delay in leaving precluded a finding of constructive discharge.”  However, the court said it might agree that McKelvey had waited to long to quit if he had stayed much longer.

The appeals court said McKelvey is entitled to back pay from the time he was constructively discharged until the Army offered him reinstatement  following the trial in his case.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Sleeping on the Job?

With America’s workplace anti-bully movement seemingly stuck in the trenches, perhaps it is time to follow the example of  America’s neighbor to the North.

The Canadian province of Quebec amended its Labour Standards Act in 2002 to ban non-discriminatory workplace harassment and bullying. The law, which went into effect on June 1, 2004, also imposes a duty on employers to prevent and stop bullying.

According to one observer, the law was the result of  a sustained campaign by Quebec unions, as well as by a non-profit advocacy and resource group for non-unionized workers, “Au bas l’echelle” (in English, “Rank and File”).

This effort resulted in the establishment  in 1999 by then Minister of Labor, Diane Lemieux, of an Interdepartmental Committee on Psychological Harassment at Work.  The committee in 2001 recommended the government take legislative steps to prohibit psychological harassment.

It is time for unions and workplace anti-bully advocates to call upon the U.S. Secretary of Labor  to empanel a commission to study the problem of workplace bulling in the United States and recommend new legislation to Congress.

There is overwhelming research that the problem of workplace bullying is epidemic in the United States, affecting at least one in four workers, and that workplace bullying destroys lives and costs American employers billions every year.

Efforts began in the United States almost a decade ago to pass a so-called Healthy Workplace Bill on a state-by-state basis.  Thus far, no state has adopted the bill, which is much weaker than Quebec’s legislation.

Meanwhile, the worsening economy has left more and more workers vulnerable to bullying. Not only are there fewer jobs, but the nature of the workforce is changing. More workers today are categorized as “independent contractors” who receive no benefits and low pay. These include  home-workers, tele-workers, piece-workers.

Even if one state does step up and adopt a workplace anti-bully bill, it will take decades, if ever, before all of the states do.

*** See Debra L. Parkes, “Targeting Workplace Harassment in Quebec: On Exporting a New Legislative Agenda” (2004) 8 Empl. Rts. & Employ. Pol’y J. 423.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement

It is ironic that the first flicker of optimism in recent months should stem from a rag-tag  protest group called Occupy Wall Street in New York City.

For years, American workers have seen factories shuttered and jobs exported overseas, experienced high and chronic unemployment, have been overworked and underpaid amid blatant and reprehensible corporate greed.

In the small world of workplace anti-bully advocates, state-by-state efforts to pass what can charitably be called anemic legislation to protect workers from this insidious form of abuse has failed to produce a  single victory in eight years. This despite the fact that most industrialized countries recognized the problem years ago and took steps to combat it.

Meanwhile, Congress appears to be in a state of paralysis, held hostage by a small group of right-wing legislators who prefer cuts in programs vital to the well-being of vulnerable children and the elderly to the repeal of tax cuts that already have transferred much of America’s wealth to the wealthiest one percent of our population.

About three weeks ago, a small group of protesters set up an encampment in New York’s Financial District to decry home foreclosures, high unemployment and the 2008 bailouts, as well as excessive force and unfair treatment of minorities, including Muslims. Their message has resonated.

On Wednesday, some of New York City’s most powerful unions were set to march from City Hall to the protest movement’s base at a park in lower Manhattan. They were to be joined by students at major public universities in New York City, where tuition is rising.

Meanwhile, similar “occupation” movements are springing up in cities around the country. On Tuesday, the Greater Boston Labor Council, representing 154 unions with 90,000 workers, supported the Occupy Boston encampment for shining “a spotlight on the imbalance of power in our nation and the role that Wall Street has played in devastating our economy.”

Nothing tangible has changed for American workers but at the same time it feels like something intangible is changing.

It is no longer just a few small voices in the wilderness who are demanding positive change on behalf of most Americans.