Is it Legal? The Key to Derailing Harassment Suits

 

An employee gets a bad write-up – and then complains he’s being harassed. Does that sound familiar? If so, take a look at Goodale v. Landscape Forms, Inc., a favorable new ruling for employers.

Took Complaint Seriously
In Goodale, an employee in Michigan complained to human resources (HR) that his co-workers were making fun of him because he was overweight.

Although the teasing had been going on for a while, the employee didn’t complain until right after he was criticized about his attendance.

The employer’s response – taking his complaint seriously and promptly investigating – prevented it from being held liable for the harassment.

He Could Be Fired
But that wasn’t all.

The court also made clear that the employer couldn’t be held liable for what it did following the investigation.That is, the employer fired the employee after the investigation revealed that he’d instigated much of the disruptive horseplay during which some of the harassment occurred.

The investigation also showed that co-workers weren’t the only ones who made inappropriate remarks.The employee made insulting and disrespectful comments to them as well and apparently showed no remorse for his actions.

After he was fired, he sued the employer for harassment and retaliation under Michigan law. The court upheld pretrial judgment for the employer.It said the harassment claim failed because the employer promptly and adequately responded to the employee’s complaint.

The retaliation claim failed because there was no evidence tying the employee’s complaint to his discharge.There was also no evidence he was treated more harshly than his co-workers because they, too, were fired for their inappropriate behavior.

Criticized About Absences
Jeremy Goodale is six feet tall. When he started working for Landscape Forms in April 2012, he weighed 446 pounds.During a February 2013 performance evaluation, Goodale’s supervisor and a manager with the authority to fire him criticized him for having too many unplanned absences.

Five days later, Goodale complained to an HR employee that three co-workers were harassing him because of his weight.

Timing Was ‘Noteworthy’
In upholding pretrial judgment for Landscape Forms, the appeals court said it was “noteworthy and intriguing” that Goodale didn’t claim he was being harassed until after he received the critical performance evaluation.

When he did complain, Goodale reported that the co-workers wrote “bacon” on his helmet, sprayed anti-spatter on his rear end, and put Visine in his water.He also claimed that one co-worker joked that McDonald’s (the fast food restaurant) ran out of food because he bought all the hamburgers.

In another incident, two of the co-workers took Goodale’s shirt, and the third one snapped a photo of them fitting into the shirt at the same time.

Embarrassed in Front of Wife
Goodale also claimed the co-workers embarrassed him in front of his wife by making whale noises when she brought him lunch.

The HR employee, the manager, and Goodale’s supervisor immediately began investigating his complaint. This involved interviewing several employees, including the three co-workers he’d accused of harassment.The investigation revealed that almost everyone who’d been interviewed – including Goodale – were involved in numerous incidents of misconduct.

For example, the investigation revealed that several employees, including Goodale, sprayed each other with the anti-spatter chemical. Goodale was also the instigator for much of the inappropriate behavior and made insulting remarks himself.

One co-worker said Goodale made a disrespectful comment about the co-worker’s girlfriend. He also made a comment about having sex with another co-worker’s mother after she was diagnosed with cancer.

Showed No Accountability
Because of what was discovered during the investigation, the manager fired four employees, including Goodale.Although Goodale admitted he made inappropriate jokes, the manager testified that he showed no accountability for his actions and gave no indication that his behavior would improve.

After he was fired, Goodale sued Landscape Forms for hostile work environment and retaliation under Michigan’s Civil Rights Act (CRA).The trial court granted pretrial judgment for the company. The appeals court upheld the judgment.

Harassment, But No Liability
The appeals court found first that the CRA does allow a plaintiff to sue for harassment based on his weight.It agreed that Goodale raised a trial question over whether the harassment was unwelcome and severe enough to interfere with his job.

One of his co-workers testified that the teasing was excessive. And Goodale said it had gotten so bad by the end of February, that he no longer wanted to come to work.The claim ultimately failed because Goodale couldn’t show that Landscape Forms should be held liable for the harassment.

First, there was no evidence that Landscape Forms knew about the harassment before Goodale complained in February 2013.

Second, right after the HR employee spoke with Goodale, the HR employee, the manager and his supervisor investigated his complaint.

Then, based on the investigation’s results, the manager fired Goodale and the three co-workers he’d accused of harassment – because all four had been misbehaving.

Under these circumstances, Landscape Forms couldn’t be held liable for creating a hostile work environment.

No Tie to Complaint
Goodale’s retaliation claim failed because he couldn’t show he was fired for complaining about the harassment.Rather, there was no question Landscape Forms fired Goodale because of his own misconduct, the appeals court said.

Also, there was no evidence he was treated more harshly than other employees.Around the same time it fired Goodale, Landscape Forms also fired the three co-workers who’d harassed him. The company was entitled to pretrial judgment.

Goodale v. Landscape Forms, Inc., No. 322617, 2015 WL 7597464 (Mich. Ct. App. 11/24/15) (Unpublished).

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