Sixth Circuit Holds Employer May Fire Employee for Failing to Report InjurySeptember 23, 2011
Ohio’s Tort Reform Provisions Apply to Retaliatory Discharge ActionsOctober 1, 2011
On September 6, 2011, The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio denied an employer’s motion for summary judgment in a sexual harassment case. Stayner v. Dep’t of Rehabilitation and Corrections, No. 2:09-CV-752.
Rosa Stayner was a corrections officer at Ross Correctional Institute since 2002. In October of 2007, a coworker named Alfred Hughes made comments to Stayner about her breasts and showed her pornographic images on his computer. Stayner reported the incident to her union representative. In writing her report about the incident, Stayner reported a similar incident occurring in 2005. After investigating the 2007 incident, a disciplinary hearing was scheduled. Hughes was ultimately terminated, however the union filed a grievance contesting the termination. At mediation, it was agreed that Hughes would be returned to work, but demoted and placed on last chance agreement.
Stayner filed suit against her employer, alleging violation of Title VII by subjecting her to sexual harassment. In its motion for summary judgment, the employer argued that Stayner’s claim must fail because it had an affirmative defense: the so-called Ellerth defense (named after a Supreme Court decision). In order to use this defense, an employer must show 1) it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any sexually harassing behavior, and 2) the plaintiff employee unreasonable failed to take advantage of any preventative or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.
The court acknowledged that, on the surface, it appeared that the employer could meet its burden that it exercised reasonable care to correct Hughes’ behavior through an investigation. However, the court stressed that the employer did not investigate Stayner’s complaints about a previous 2005 incident. It rejected the employer’s argument that this complaint was time-barred, noting that the incidents could make out a continuing harassing environment theory. The employer’s motion for summary judgment was denied.
While most employers are aware that they are under an obligation to investigate complaints of sexual harassment in order to avoid liability, the Stayner case serves as valuable reminder that these investigations must be very thorough. All complaints made by employees should be taken seriously and fully investigated.