Thursday, February 6, 2014

An Employer's Prompt Remedial Action Results in a Fifth Circuit Reversal of a Race Harassment Jury Verdict

On January 31, 2014, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a hostile work environment jury verdict based on race, finding that the employer's prompt remedial action was sufficient to defeat the claim.  See Williams-Boldware v. Denton County, Texas, No. 13-40044.

In that case, the African-American plaintiff complained about racially inappropriate language directed at her by her Caucasian male co-worker.  Within twenty-four hours of her complaint, the co-worker had issued a written apology, and the complaining employee's immediate supervisor reported the incident to human resources.  The employer then reprimanded the co-worker, required him to participate in diversity training, and transferred the plaintiff to a different division to ensure she had no contact with the co-worker.  

The race harassment claim proceeded to trial, and the trial court denied the employer's motion for judgment as a matter of law.  The jury awarded the plaintiff over $400,000 in mental anguish damages and the employer appealed.

Reversing the trial court's denial of judgment as a matter of law, the Fifth Circuit focused on the employer's post-complaint conduct, which included:

  • the supervisor's prompt report of the complaint to human resources.
  • the employer's meeting with the plaintiff to discuss her complaint.
  • the employer's acquiescence to the plaintiff's request to personally confront the co-worker.
  • the employer's request for the plaintiff's input on an appropriate response.
  • the employer's verbal reprimand of the co-worker.
  • the employer's requirement that the co-worker attend diversity training.
In short, the employer's remedial efforts were prompt and "effectively halted"the racially harassing conduct entitling it to judgment as a matter of law.