Feb 10, 2010

Victorious Supreme Court Plaintiff Wins $1.5 Million Verdict

About a year ago, the Supreme Court found in favor of an employee, Vicky Crawford, who was fired after she participated in an investigation of workplace sexual harassment. (The case was Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee; you can read my previous post about it here.) The Court held that Crawford could sue for retaliation; Crawford's employer had argued that, because Crawford was only a witness in the investigation and not the person who had originally complained of harassment, she was not protected from retaliation. After the Supreme Court's decision kept Crawford's claim alive, the case went back to the federal district court for a trial on the facts.

A couple of weeks ago, the jury reached a verdict: Crawford was awarded $1.5 million in damages. After losing its legal argument that Crawford couldn't bring a retaliation claim, the employer tried a different tack: It argued that Crawford wasn't fired for participating in the harassment case, but for performance problems. The employer said Crawford was once a good employee, but her performance had been slipping; when an audit revealed problems in the payroll department, including checks that were never deposited, she was ultimately fired.

Of course, we can only know the facts that were recounted in news articles or court decisions about the case. Based on the information I've seen, I think there are a few lessons employers can take from what happened in this case:

  • Timing is everything. Retaliation cases are all about timing, more specifically how much time passed between the employee's protected activity and the employer's alleged retaliation. The shorter the time period, the more it looks like retaliation. Here, the HR person who conducted the harassment investigation reported possible problems in the payroll department on the same day she filed her report in the harassment case. Same day plus same person involved in both issues equals huge mountain for the employer to climb to refute a retaliation claim.
  • Can I get a witness? You don't necessarily need one to decide that harassment took place. It looks like another big problem for the employer in this case was that it fired three employees who participated in the investigation -- in which pretty bad behavior was alleged. Crawford said that the harasser pulled her head into his crotch, asked to see her breasts, and grabbed his own crotch, saying "you know what's up." Two other employees also said that they were harassed, and were also fired. Yet, the employer argued that it couldn't discipline the harasser because there were no witnesses to the behavior. Again, I've got no inside line on what "really" happened, but if three employees all allege that they were harassed, that's ample reason to take action. Often, there are no witnesses to harassment other than the harasser and the harassee. That doesn't relieve employers of their obligation to take action to stop harassment.
  • The work environment affects performance. Here, the employer said Crawford was once a good employee, but her performance declined. We don't know the source of Crawford's performance problems, but in a situation like this, employers should consider whether poor performance might be explained, at least in part, by the harassment. Employees who have been harassed might have higher absentee rates, problems concentrating, and other performance issues. If the problems are attributable to the harassment, the employer should deal with the underlying issue, then work with the employee to help her get back on track.