If you have been sexually harassed at work, lost your job, and you want
to start a lawsuit to enforce your rights under Title VII, it is extremely
important for you to show that you used your employer's procedures
for dealing with complaints, and that you cooperated with HR in pursuing
your options. Failure to do so can ruin your case.
case decided by a Federal Court in Alabama illustrates this rule. Rhonda Simpson
was hired in 2002 to work at a Big Lots store somewhere in Alabama, after
W.C. Collingsworth, a manager there, saw her at a fast food restaurant
and thought she looked like Farrah Fawcett. She went to work at Big Lots,
starting as a cashier, and working her way up to Assistant Manager. For
most of the time she was there, she did not report to Collingsworth, but
that didn't stop him from being extremely crude and disgusting on
a regular basis.
According to Simpson's deposition testimony, Collingsworth attempted
to kiss her, touched her often, and told her that "her tits are looking
good today" at least ten or fifteen times over the ten years she
worked at Big Lots. She also claimed that he told stories "about
his hard-on and screwing some lady in a car", and saw an employee
on her knees and remarked that he liked his women that way. He told dirty
jokes in her presence using the words "whore" and "slut,
and made such inappropriate comments only to women.
Simpson did admit, however, that she would report each incident to a supervisor,
who would then arrange a meeting with Collingsworth. She said that his
behavior would improve for a couple of weeks at a time after those meetings.
Simpson also contacted Big Lots' employee hotline in 2006 concerning
the sexual harassment, although she was more concerned about her co-workers
than herself. There was an investigation, but she did not participate in it.
Simpson also claimed that she had complained to her boss, and in response
the manager brought a district manager in to conduct another investigation.
However, when the district manager was on site, Simpson was on medical
leave and did not contact him. To make matters worse, Ms. Simpson advised
a female co-worker, who had a notebook documenting Collingsworth's
alleged harassment, not to share her notebook with the district manager.
Simpson was later injured on the job, and was administratively terminated
for failing to return from a leave of absence. The termination was not
connected to her sexual harassment complaints. She then brought a lawsuit
for sexual harassment.
The lower court threw out her case, and the appeals court affirmed the
lower court ruling. The federal court based its decision on a U.S. Supreme
Court case which ruled that an employer will not be liable for harassment
by a supervisor under Title VII if the harassment does not result in a
"tangible job detriment," and (1) the employer has effective
measures in place to prevent harassment and correct it if it occurs, and
(2) the employee unreasonably fails to make use of the employer's
The court found that although Collingsworth's behavior was probably
sexually harassing, it threw out the case because Big Lots had both a
policy prohibiting workplace harassment and an effective mechanism for
making complaints. The court also found that the company had conducted
"reasonable" follow-up on Simpson's complaints. Finally,
the court found that Simpson had failed to avail herself of the employer's
remedial measures by failing to present herself for interviews during
the two investigations and instructing her co-worker not to provide her
notes to the investigator.
The takeaway: If you have been sexually harassed in the workplace, be sure
to inform HR and to cooperate with their investigation. It is vitally
important to use the employer's internal procedures for dealing with
sexual harassment before starting a lawsuit. If that get you nowhere,
than you can pursue your legal remedies.