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Workplace Policies Save the Day in Title VII Lawsuit


Nooses in the work place, a picture of a burning cross, and racial slurs, yet still an employer was able to successfully defend itself against claims of discrimination, harassment, retaliation and hostile work environment.  The federal trial court in Texas granted summary judgment in favor of the employer on all Title VII claims and other federal and state discriminatory laws alleged – a true testament to the employer’s comprehensive and effective workplace policies.

By Mary Leigh Pirtle

Employee #1: Violation of workplace policy legitimate grounds for termination
The employer’s zero-tolerance policy surrounding workplace safety was the true saving grace against the first employee’s allegation of racial discrimination.  An African-American employee was caught standing on the next to top step of a ladder, in violation of the company’s policy.  The employee was immediately terminated.  The employee subsequently filed suit alleging the termination was the result of racial discrimination.  However, approximately one month prior to the incident, the employee attended an employer conducted on-site training session covering safety issues.  The purpose of the meeting was to announce a zero tolerance policy surrounding ladder safety.  The employee was warned this “zero tolerance” policy meant there would be no warnings, and that any violators would be sent home permanently.  

In support of his discrimination claim, the employee noted that several other Caucasian employees were given warnings before they were terminated.  However, under Title VII, these employees must be “similarly situated” in order for the employee to prove the employer discriminated against him, based at least in part on his race.  In other words, the employee had to provide an “apples to apples” comparison, a standard the employee was unable to meet since the employee failed to show other Caucasian employees had the same supervisor, worked in the same division and had similar violation histories.  More importantly, the employee failed to prove the Caucasian employees were given warnings instead of being terminated after the zero tolerance policy went into effect.  Because the employee could not show he was treated differently based upon his race, and because the safety violation under the new policy was a legitimate reason for his termination, the court found in favor of the employer.  

Employee #2: Employers must be given opportunity to remedy situation
The second employee alleged he was racially harassed after he received a text message from his supervisors depicting a burning cross and noose.  In addition, this African-American employee was allegedly repeatedly subjected to racial slurs and offensive remarks concerning his race.  The employee reported the incidents, but at the same time, quit his job.  While the court found that the workplace environment was hostile enough to support the employee’s claim, the employer was still able to provide a successful affirmative defense to escape liability: the employee failed to reasonably avoid the harassment and the employer took preventative care to remedy the situation.   Here, the employee did not report the incidents until the day he quit his job, which did not allow the employer an opportunity to remedy the situation.  Encouraging employees to file charges against an employer without giving them a reasonable opportunity to address the problem would be unreasonable, according to the court.  Employers must be given a chance to mitigate damages.  In addition, the employer immediately terminated the other offending employees when it became aware of their conduct, in an effort to prevent any further harassment.  The employer also had an anti-harassment policy in effect, of which all involved employees were aware.  Under Texas law, the simple fact that an employer has an anti-harassment policy is enough to show the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent the harassment.  The court found these facts, taken as a whole, provided the employer with a successful affirmative defense against the second employee’s Title VII claims and granted judgment in the employer’s favor.  

Employee #3: Prompt action and work place policy – affirmative defense
The third and final claim involved an African-American employee who allegedly found several nooses in his workstation.  After the employee reported the incident to the employer, the employee immediately moved the employee to a different workstation.  After this move, the employee never saw another noose during his employment.  A month after he reported the incident, the employee was terminated for violating the employer’s attendance policy.  The employee was aware of the existence of the policy and had received several oral and written warnings before he was ultimately terminated, however, the employee still filed suit against the employer for retaliation, hostile work environment and racial discrimination.  

The hostile work environment claim failed for the same reasons as described above, prompt remedial action and no subsequent harassment provided the employer with a successful defense.  The employer immediately took steps to prevent any further harassment by moving the employee to a different workstation, and was successful.  

The employer was able to successfully defend against the racial discrimination and retaliation claims because of its comprehensive workplace policies.  The employee was aware of the attendance policy, had received several prior warnings that he was in violation of the policy, and was ultimately terminated pursuant to that policy.  Thus, the employer had a legitimate reason for the employee’s termination, and the court granted judgment in favor of the employer, again

Take Away
This case is an excellent example of an employer’s swift corrective actions and its workplace policies working together to protect the employer against unsupported Title VII claims.  In order for a workplace policy to provide protection, employers should communicate its policies to all employees, implement regular training, ensure the employees have acknowledged the existence of the policies and should enforce the policies across the board equally.

Paul H. Duvall, Partner at King & Ballow, represented the Employer in this lawsuit.

Read the full Opinion here.

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