In a recent decision (Taylor v. Chao, Secretary of Labor, D.D.C. Civil No. 03-1761 (RMC), 10/19/07), a federal district court has answered “no” to this question: “Can an employer be held liable for sexual harassment when a plaintiff was offended by some managers’ comments but did not complain for months, and when she did complain the employer investigated quickly and the alleged harassment ceased?” (Opinion, p. 1)
Taylor was an auditor for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a government organization with a Board of Directors consisting of the Secretaries of Labor, Commerce and Treasury, with the Secretary of Labor as Chairman.
Taylor filed a sexual harassment complaint and a charge of retaliation several months after several instances occurred largely involving a supervisor of another work group. The court’s opinion goes into detail about the incidents, and at times the facts of this work group sound a bit like a currently popular sitcom: At a team building scavenger hunt Taylor was asked if her hair was “red all over;” another supervisor called her “sweetie,” another complimented her on her appearance; and the outside supervisor told her he wanted to be her “close friend,” he could beat up her fiancé, and he bragged about women being attracted to him.
For a harassment claim to succeed, among other things the plaintiff has to show that her employer knew (or should have known) about the harassment and did nothing to stop it. In this case, Taylor waited several months to complain. When she did bring an official complaint, PBGC opened an investigation 3 days later and completed it within a few weeks. (p. 9)
The employer defended against Taylor’s claim by showing that it has a policy against harassment, the policy tells how to raise a complaint, all employees were reminded about the policy in periodic notices, and the policy explained that an employee must bring a complaint within 45 days. PBGC also demonstrated to the court that Ms. Taylor failed to take advantage of her rights to complain and seek employer intervention. (pp. 8-9)
The court then examined the facts and concluded that the incidents cited by Taylor were “insufficiently severe and pervasive to constitute an hostile work environment.” Judge Rosemary Collyer went on to say, “While Ms. Taylor may have been genuinely offended at some of the comments made to her, these are the type of offhand comments and isolated incidents that simply do not amount to a discriminatory change in the terms and conditions of employment.” (p. 12; citations omitted)
The end result was summary judgment for the Department.