Employer’s Swift Decisive Action Helps Defeat Hostile Work Environment Claim

November 26, 2019

On October 24, 2019, Judge Cathy Seibel of the Southern District of New York issued her ruling granting Defendants’ summary judgment motion in the matter of Lawrence v. Chemprene, Inc., et al., 18-CV-2537. While the procedural history and the conduct of plaintiff’s counsel in this matter is a lesson on how not to act when opposing a motion in federal court, an interesting point raised in the Court’s ruling stuck out as worthy of a second glance. Specifically, the Court held that the employer’s swift action with respect to a racially derogatory comment by one of its employees contributed to its finding that a former employee was not subject to a hostile work environment.

Miguel Lawrence, a former employee of manufacturer Chemprene, Inc., sued Chemprene and several of its managers for discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation. One of Mr. Lawrence’s claims was that a coworker made a derogatory and discriminatory remark about him to another coworker. Although the comment was not made directly to Mr. Lawrence, the Court noted that secondhand comments cannot be ignored in claims involving a hostile work environment. Nevertheless, since the employer investigated quickly and terminated the employee who made the comment within one to two days of hearing about the remark, the Court held that the secondhand comment could not support plaintiff’s claim of a hostile work environment.

For an employer, this decision highlights the importance and value of quickly investigating an employee’s claims of discrimination and acting as fast as possible.

Given the current trends in litigation involving discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits, employers should have investigative policies and plans in place that deal with employee complaints, and should be prepared to act immediately should their investigation reveal that the accused employee or supervisor engaged in discriminatory and/or harassing behaviors. Delays in doing so or failing to act in general may open up employers to liability.

Obermayer attorneys are available to help you review and update your existing investigative plans and policies, or draft a plan that is specific to your business.

The information contained in this publication should not be construed as legal advice, is not a substitute for legal counsel, and should not be relied on as such. For legal advice or answers to specific questions, please contact one of our attorneys.