Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Rebuffed Coworkers With Influence Create Liability

If you read this blog enough, you will know that intra-office romances seem to come up frequently as a catalyst for some type of lawsuit. In fact, sexual attraction between coworkers is a dominant theme in any number of workplace problems, from harassment of all types to compensation problems to unfair labor practices.  Companies are routinely sued for harassment, discrimination or some other real or imagined slight in situations where a supervisor is attracted to an uninterested (at least at the time of the illegal conduct) subordinate.

But what about a situation where a manager, who is not a supervisor, wants to be get romantically involved with another employee, but is rebuffed?  A federal case out of the First Circuit provides some useful guidance on how the Title VII model of proof plays out in these unusual circumstances.

The male plaintiff was hired as a manager for a company in Puerto Rico. In the course of his position as a regional general manager, a position into which he was promoted less than six months after he was hired, he interacted extensively with a female human resources manager. The two had apparently a friendly, casual flirting relationship that lasted until the woman expressly began indicating she wanted a romantic relationship with him, something in which the plaintiff was not interested. He raised her romantic interest, which she expressed in a number of e-mails, with his supervisors, and in response was told that he should send her a conciliatory e-mail because if he did not, the woman was going to get him fired.

True to this prediction, the HR manager began a systematic campaign against the plaintiff with his supervisors, who then determined to put him on a performance improvement plan. The HR manager was not satisfied with this, and sent a message to company headquarters indicating that she thought any additional opportunity for work improvement was unwarranted and that the plaintiff should be terminated immediately. This is exactly what occurred.

The plaintiff sued for harassment, gender discrimination, and retaliation.  The trial court granted summary judgment to the company on all counts, but the First Circuit reversed with respect to the gender discrimination claim, determining that the plaintiff's termination was a violation of Title VII. The court determined that even though there was no supervisory relationship between the spurned HR manager and the plaintiff, a jury could find that she was effectively engaging in quid pro quo gender discrimination and that she was the proximate cause of the plaintiff's firing for his failure to comply with her wishes. The court set the following test for what is effectively a cat's paw discrimination claim: the plaintiff's coworker must make statements or take actions maligning the plaintiff for a discriminatory reason and with the intent to cause the plaintiff's termination or other adverse employment action; the coworker's discriminatory acts must proximately cause the plaintiff to be fired; and the employer acts negligently by allowing the coworker's actions to achieve their desired effect, though the employer knows or should have known of the discriminatory motivation.

The court noted that the female manager's motivation here was discriminatory-she was responding to being rebuffed on a sexual basis, something that had she been a supervisor would have resulted in strict liability for the company.  Her actions were a direct factor in the termination of the plaintiff. And, most importantly, the people actually making the decision were aware of her conduct and the basis for it. Under the circumstances, the company could be held liable for gender discrimination.

An interesting case, and a useful one for the analytical steps demonstrated by the court in funding liability.

Footnote: because the relationship did not appear to affect the plaintiff's work performance, the court determined that the romantic come-ons were not harassment, and that the retaliation claim failed because the plaintiff could not show that he was terminated as a result of his complaints about the female manager. This is consistent with a limited view of the evidence; I think I would've found harassment under the circumstances.

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