Court Holds Employer Can Be Liable For Harassing Actions Of Its Customer If It Does Not Take Reasonable Steps To Prevent The Harassment

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On April 29, 2014, the Fourth Circuit held that a plaintiff had triable sexual and racial harassment claims under Title VII regarding conduct by a customer of her former employer.  During her employment, the plaintiff overheard a number of comments by the customer, including him asking “who are these black bitches” in reference to a photograph in the workplace, using the n-word, and making sexual comments.  The plaintiff’s direct supervisor witnessed some of these comments as early as 2006, but the plaintiff did not report the customer’s conduct to human resources until 2009.  In response to the plaintiff’s 2009 complaint, human resources banned the customer, but then revised its stance to prohibit the customer from interacting with the plaintiff only.  The trial court granted summary judgment to the employer, but the Fourth Circuit reversed and joined several other federal circuits in holding that a negligence standard applies to third-party harassment claims under Title VII.  (The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to decide this issue.)  The Fourth Circuit noted that a jury could find that the employer was negligent for failing to do something about the customer’s conduct when its management, but not human resources, knew about the racially and sexually charged conduct of a customer, yet waited a significant amount of time to remedy it.  This case reiterates the importance of frequent and detailed anti-harassment training for all members of management and highlights the importance of shifting away from the mindset of “not my employee, not my problem” in the workplace.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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