3rd Circuit Decision Limits Harassment Claims

June 12, 2009 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - In a precedential decision, the 3rd U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that plaintiffs cannot rely on evidence that a supervisor knew of their alleged harassment, but must show that a "management level" employee was aware of the conduct.

The Legal Intelligencer reports that the a unanimous three-judge panel concluded that, in the context of a sexual harassment claim, a plaintiff who alleges complaints were ignored must show a complaint was made to a management level employee with the authority to take action on the claim. “In requiring that a ‘management level’ employee have knowledge of the allegations of co-worker sexual harassment as a pre-requisite for imputing that knowledge to the employer, we require that this knowledge have reached an employee in the governing body of the entity, as opposed to merely a supervisory employee in the labor force,” Circuit Judge D. Brooks Smith wrote, according to the Legal Intelligencer.

Smith said that an employee’s knowledge of allegations of a worker’s sexual harassment by a coworker may typically be imputed to the company if the employee is sufficiently senior in the employer’s governing hierarchy, or otherwise in a position of administrative responsibility over employees under him, so that such knowledge is important to the employee’s general managerial duties; or if the employee is specifically employed to deal with sexual harassment complaints.

Applying the standard to the case at hand, the appellate court found that Priscilla Huston did not complain to management about the allegedly hostile environment in which she worked until June of 2004, at which time Proctor & Gamble responded quickly by beginning an investigation that also quickly led to discipline. Huston’s claim against the company was hinged on evidence that her previous complaints to two supervisors were disregarded and she was forced to face additional harassment.

Smith noted in the opinion that Procter & Gamble did not employ the two supervisors to discover or act upon allegations of harassment, but to “keep the machines working.”

The ruling upholds a decision in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania granting summary judgment in the company’s favor.

The 3rd Circuit opinion is here .