Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Federal Court Holds Female Employee Has No Sexual Harassment Claim Despite Being Flashed

In yet another case that emphasizes how the "devil is in the facts" when it comes to employment law cases and especially sexual harassment cases, a federal court in the Southern District of Mississippi has dismissed a female plaintiff's sexual harassment and constructive discharge claims even though the facts showed that a male coworker flashed his genitals, showed her pictures of his genitals and made sexual references toward her.

The plaintiff, Joslyne E. Davenport, was hired through a temp agency to work at a Nissan manufacturing plant on a line installing brakes.  Her coworker, Fred Tate, was a line leader on her shift.  The plaintiff and Tate were supervised by Aaron Rogers.  The plaintiff claims that within weeks of starting this new job, Tate exposed his genitals to her while they were working.  Following this incident, the plaintiff informed another coworker of what happened but not any of her supervisor(s) and the plaintiff and Tate continued to work together for two (2) months before the plaintiff told another coworker, Dwight Turner, about what happened and Turner then reported the incident to human resources at both Nissan and the temp agency.  The plaintiff then contended that during the two months in between the initial incident and Turner's report, that Tate made sexual references and displayed photos of his genitals in front of other employees of Nissan and the temp agency.

Upon learning of Tate's conduct, both Nissan and the temp agency conducted investigations and interviewed several employees.  The holidays disrupted work and the investigations but when the plaintiff returned to work, she was reassigned to another area and given different coworkers and supervisors.  The plaintiff claims that when she next saw Tate Rogers, they didn't say anything to her but "glared at her," which prompted her to quit her job.  Tate was subsequently terminated for other misconduct, not for his alleged nude exposure to the plaintiff and others.  The plaintiff then filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and then in federal court upon her issuance of a Right to Sue Letter.

In dismissing her claims, the district court found that (a) Mr. Tate was not Ms. Davenport’s supervisor, as he had no authority to hire, fire, or discipline Ms. Davenport; (b) Ms. Davenport failed to introduce any evidence to demonstrate that Mr. Tate’s conduct was severe or pervasive enough to alter a term or condition of her employment; (c) Ms. Davenport delayed in reporting the incident to Nissan/Kelly Services; and (d) the Defendants’ prompt investigation into the flashing incident contradicted Ms. Davenport’s claim that the Defendants were negligent in their handling of the incident.

This case illustrates the difficulty in presenting sexual harassment claims even when the facts show the more common sense definition of "sexual harassment."  Furthermore, the law imposes very strict standards for when an employer is liable for such conduct by its employees.  The plaintiff's conduct in reaction to the alleged sexual harassment also suggested that she did not experience sever or pervasive conduct to alter a term or condition of her employment because her initial reaction wasn't to complain to her supervisors, but to instead tell a coworker as if it was more humorous than anything and it was another coworker who complained instead of the person actually "harassed."  

The case is Davenport v. Nissan North America, Inc., et al 3:14-CV-00671, Southern District of Mississippi.

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