November 3, 2014
Last week, a federal jury awarded three former employees $499,000 against healthcare company EmCare, Inc. for sex harassment and retaliation. The plaintiffs alleged that the division CEO and other managers subjected Executive Assistant Gloria Stokes to “constant lewd sexual comments” that included comments about female body parts, derogatory references to women and sexual jokes. Ms. Stokes alleged that she complained about the harassment, but HR failed to take appropriate action. The other two plaintiffs, Luke Trahan and Bonnie Shaw, complained to HR about the sexual comments and were fired six weeks later. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits sex harassment and prohibits retaliation against employees who oppose sex harassment.
The jury awarded Ms. Stokes $250,000 in the sex harassment claim. While EmCare claimed Mr. Trahan and Ms. Shaw were fired for performance issues, the jury found that they were fired in retaliation for complaining about the sex harassment and awarded them $167,000 and $82,000, respectively, bringing the total award up to $499,000.
This jury verdict highlights several important rules for employers:
- Employers must take employee complaints of harassment seriously by investigating thoroughly and taking appropriate action to prevent and correct any sexually harassing behavior.
- Anti-harassment rules must apply to everyone and must be enforced against even the highest ranking company officers or owners.
- While an employer cannot stop managing an employee simply because the employee has complained about harassment, the employer must acknowledge the additional risk associated with terminating or disciplining such an employee. Recognizing that the timing may appear suspicious to a jury and the decision closely scrutinized, the employer should take additional care to make sure that the performance or other legitimate reasons for termination or discipline are well-supported by the evidence and consistently applied.
For more information about the EmCare jury verdict, read the EEOC's press release here.