What Constitutes “Sufficient Notice” To An Employer Of Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is one of the most well-known forms of employment discrimination. But what happens if you’re a victim of sexual harassment at work? Do you know who to tell? When does your employer need to act? A recent employment discrimination case involving allegations of same-sex harassment looked at what is “sufficient notice” of a complaint to require an employer to act. If you believe you have been subjected to sex harassment at work but don’t know what to do next, it’s a good idea to consult with a top Atlanta employment discrimination attorney right away.

In Lambert v. Peri Formworks Sys. Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit looked at the complaints of a black male work who made complaints of alleged same-sex harassment to employees who had higher authority than he did, but weren’t managers.

In this instance, the worker – Lambert – alleged that another co-worker regularly touched Lambert’s buttocks, stared at his genitals, spied on him in the shower and made several crude sexual comments and gestures. Lambert complained about the behavior to two yards leads. The leads were responsible for organizing yard worker teams, but didn’t have the authority to hire, fire or discipline employees. However the leads were responsible for reporting “anything that was going wrong” to a yard manager, who was then expected to refer the complaint up the ladder to someone who could act on the issue.

Although no company harassment policy was in place at the time of the initial complaints, the company subsequently adopted a harassment policy requiring workers to report complaints of harassment to the company’s manager.

At first look, the lower court determined that Lambert could not maintain a claim of sexual harassment because he didn’t complain to the proper company authorities. The lower court reasoned that because the leads lacked the authority to hire or fire employees, they couldn’t be expected to process complaints about harassment.

However, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit completely disagreed and reversed this decision. Stating that an employer can be held liable for co-worker harassment if it is “negligent in discovering or remedying” the harassment. Further, even though the leads weren’t considered supervisors, employer liability may be triggered by [providing notice to] “someone who could ‘reasonably be expected to refer the complaint up the ladder to the employee authorized to act on it.” Further, the court noted that focusing on “whether the information comes to the attention of someone who should do something about the harassment, either directly or by referring the matter to someone who can, is a better, … more practical, approach than asking at what level in a corporate hierarchy an employee is.”

Thus, the court determined that complaining to someone who should do something about harassment is enough to put the company on notice and potentially make them liable for the harassment.

For more information or if you have questions about sexual harassment, please contact the top Atlanta sexual harassment attorneys at Buckley Bala Wilson Mew LLP for an immediate case evaluation.