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Tennessee Nurse Allowed to Pursue Title VII Case After Employer Allegedly Ignored or Minimized Multiple Instances of Sexual Harassment

Sexual HarassmentPublicly available employment law court rulings can often be very helpful, both to employers and to employees. Unfortunately, many court case decisions are instructive in a “what not to do” sense, for one side or the other. Working with experienced Tennessee employment law attorneys is one way to make sure you don’t fall into the “what not to do” traps that often ensnare real-life litigants. In a recent Tennessee sexual harassment case, it was the employee’s evidence related to the employer’s allegedly woefully inadequate response to sexual harassment that allowed her to take her case to trial.

Tracy was a nurse at a major food company’s facility in suburban Nashville. At first, shortly after Tracy began working at the plant, a co-worker began bringing her candy every week. After a few months, things escalated. The co-worker started asking the nurse to dinner and making kissing noises whenever he entered the nurse’s work area. The nurse asked the co-worker to stop his behavior, but he did not stop.

The nurse reported the conduct to her direct supervisor at least weekly. The supervisor told the nurse that the man was “harmless” and advised her not to report the co-worker to Human Resources. By April 2014, things had worsened to the point that the nurse, on one occasion, had to lock herself in her office after the man had shown up, asked her if she was alone, grabbed her hand, and refused to let go. The nurse again reported the conduct. The supervisor again recommended not involving Human Resources.

A few weeks later, during a meeting about an unrelated matter, the supervisor and another manager began criticizing the nurse for having locked herself in the office and having used a radio to call for help during the incident with the co-worker. Shortly thereafter, the nurse stated that she felt harassed and that she was resigning.

The nurse later sued the employer for sexual harassment. The nurse’s case alleged that the employer’s repeated mishandling of the harassment perpetrated against her constituted a hostile work environment and that her resignation amounted to a constructive discharge.

The employer sought summary judgment but lost. The employer argued that the nurse lacked proper proof that the harassment she suffered was sufficiently severe or pervasive under the law. The District Court strongly disagreed. A 1993 U.S. Supreme Court provided a non-exhaustive list of factors that courts could use to analyze whether harassment was severe or pervasive. These things included “the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening, or a mere utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s performance.”

In this case, the plaintiff had enough evidence, according to the judge, to allow a reasonable jury to find the existence of severe or pervasive harassment regarding every one of the factors that the Supreme Court had listed back in 1993. The judge concluded that it would be reasonable for a jury to infer that the co-worker engaged in sexually suggestive conduct, repeatedly asked for dates, made inappropriate physical conduct, chased her around her office, and forced her to lock herself in her office to prevent him from sexually assaulting her.

This went on for three of the nurse’s seven months on the job. The nurse asked her supervisor to put a stop to the co-worker’s harassment, but the supervisor did not make it stop, the judge wrote. Employers can be liable for co-worker-on-co-worker harassment if the employer’s “response manifests indifference or unreasonableness in light of the facts the employer knew or should have known.” The court concluded that the nurse had enough proof to advance a viable claim that the employer’s actions were unreasonable or indifferent.

The employee’s success in this matter is very instructive on two points:  one, employers should take extreme care to avoid situations that give the appearance that an employee’s complaints of sexual harassment were ignored or dismissed as “no big deal.” Two, employees should make sure that, if they experience sexual harassment, they report it promptly to the employer. Ideally, the employer will take action to stop the harassment, but, if not, these facts may be integral if a lawsuit becomes necessary later.

If you’ve been a victim of sexual harassment on the job, or you are facing a harassment lawsuit, reach out to the diligent Tennessee sexual harassment attorneys at Mays & Kerr. Our attorneys are here to help and have been effectively representing both employees and employers in sexual harassment and other Title VII cases for many years. To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 1-877-986-5529.

More blog posts:

When is a Worker a ‘Co-Worker’ and When is He a ‘Supervisor’ in Terms of a Sexual Harassment Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, June 20, 2017

Failure to Act Costs Tennessee Employer in Employee’s Sexual Harassment Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, March 3, 2016