The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (which oversees Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan) recently addressed a trucking company’s liability when an employee sued alleging sexual harassment by the driver trainer, after being terminated. The Sixth Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision against the trucking company finding the trucking company liable for the $150,000 jury verdict.
A trucking company (“company”) hired a female truck driver who did not yet have her commercial driver’s license (CDL). Because of her lack of a CDL, the trucking company hired her as a trainee, and arranged for her to accompany one of the trucking company’s employees hauling freight until she had the experience and skills to pass the driving test. After the female employee’s first trip with the driver trainer, she reported to the company’s second-in-command that she awoke to the driver trainer touching her chest inappropriately. The second-in-command stated that she would handle it, but then took no further actions to investigate or inform other management.
The company continued scheduling the female driver and the driver trainer to work together. After approximately two months, the female driver reported that she had again awoken to the driver trainer touching her inappropriately, this time by putting his hand between her legs. This time she reported the incident not only to the second-in-command, but also to the company’s owner. At that point, the company stopped scheduling the female driver with the driver trainer and looked for alternate solutions to complete the female driver’s training. Finding no alternate solution, the company terminated the female driver. The female driver then sued the company under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and applicable State law, alleging sex discrimination and retaliation.
After a jury trial, the jury concluded that the company was not liable for the driver trainer’s harassment, but that it was liable for terminating her employment in retaliation for her complaint. The jury awarded the female driver $50,000 in lost wages and $100,000 in punitive damages. The company moved for a new trial, alleging the jury’s retaliation finding and its award of punitive damages were against the weight of the evidence. The lower court denied the company’s request for a new trial. The company appealed the decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Appellate Court’s Decision
In upholding the lower court’s decision, the Appellate Court focused on the evidence introduced at trial. Representatives from the company admitted at trial that the female employee would have remained on the work schedule had she not reported the assault, which was sufficient causation for a finding of retaliation. That evidence established a causal connection between the female employee’s sexual harassment complaint and the loss of her job.
Regarding the punitive damages, the Appellate Court again sided with the lower court in determining that punitive damages were warranted. In order to establish punitive damages, the female driver had to prove that the company acted with malice or with reckless disregard to the employee’s federally protected right not to be subjected to retaliation. The Appellate Court analyzed the company’s responses after each of the female driver’s two allegations of harassment. Regarding the first allegation of assault, the Appellate Court noted that the company continued sending the female driver and the driver trainer together out on runs, which was not protecting the female driver. After the second allegation of assault, the Appellate Court observed that the company never even explored the option of putting the female driver with any other driver trainer. Ultimately, the Appellate Court determined that the undisputed evidence indicated that the company did very little to help the female driver after her allegations of assault.
The trucking company’s actions following the employee’s complaints in this case are a good example of how not to handle allegations of harassment by employees. Allegations by employees, male or female, are often complex and involve multiple issues, including differing descriptions of the same story. These allegations should be taken seriously, investigated properly, and handled quickly and appropriately. Employers should have policies in place for such actions, including how to handle these situations. These policies should be consistently applied. Furthermore, employers should understand that such harassment or discrimination claims can also quickly turn into additional retaliation claims which can lead to significant liability, including punitive damages.
R. Eddie Wayland is a partner with the law firm of King & Ballow. You may reach Mr. Wayland at (615) 726-5430 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. The foregoing materials, discussion and comments have been abridged from laws, court decisions, and administrative rulings and should not be construed as legal advice on specific situations or subjects.