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Prompt Employer Action Leads to Dismissal of Racial Harassment Claim Despite Employer’s Deficient Policy

In March 2004, a federal judge held Calhoon MEBA Engineering School, a Maryland school for marine officers, was entitled to summary judgment on an African American maintenance employee’s racial harassment claims, even though the school’s equal employment opportunity policies had “stark deficiencies.”

The school’s policy required all employees to report incidents of harassment to either the school’s human resources manager, whose office was off school property, or directly to the director of the school.

However, on September 3, 2002, when the maintenance employee, Edward Bernard, informed his supervisor that a co-worker, William Helms, had made racist comments and jokes, the school responded quickly to Bernard’s complaint “without regard for the procedure provided for in its deficient policy.” The supervisor had Helms apologize and reported the incident to the school’s off-site human resource manager. The human resource manager documented the incident in Helms’ permanent file and warned him against further us of offensive language. Moreover, the school’s director met with the maintenance department and instructed them to not engage in “rumors, abusive language, name calling, racial or sexual harassment, or any type of discrimination.” Finally, the human resources manager held subsequent follow-up meetings with Bernard.

Despite the employer’s warnings and instructions, in July 2003, Helms made another racially charged an offensive comment to Bernard. As a result, Bernard resigned and sued the school for race discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Although the court held the school’s policy was unreasonable and deficient, it nevertheless granted summary judgment to the employer. According to the court, “an employer is liable for a non-supervisory employee’s actionable racial harassment of a co-worker only if the employer has actual or constructive knowledge that harassment is occurring and negligently failed to take prompt and adequate remedial action to stop it.” In this case, the employer acted promptly and took remedial action that was “adequate to remedy the harm done.”

By responding quickly and adequately addressing harassment complaints, employers substantially limit their liability. In addition to having an appropriate equal employment opportunity policy, it is also important that employers obtain proper training for their management staff to ensure that when harassment issues arise, they are adequately resolved.

Brody and Associates regularly advises its clients on matters such as this. Should you have any questions, please call us. We can be reached at (203) 965-0560 or info@brodyandassociates.com.