OK, we admit it is somewhat cliché for employment lawyers to circulate client alerts every December warning about the dangers lurking at company holiday parties. But when real-life examples show just how expensive claims arising from these events can be, we would be remiss not to issue yet another such alert.
Last December, we issued an alert concerning a federal district court’s refusal to dismiss a holiday party related sexual harassment lawsuit filed against an employer, Shiner v. State University of New York at Buffalo (Case No. 11-CV-01024).
The case finally settled in August 2013, with the employer paying the plaintiff a whopping $255,000.
The plaintiff, Leslie Shiner, was a clerk at the University at Buffalo Dental School. She alleged that she had not wanted to attend the school’s annual holiday party because the conduct at previous events made her uncomfortable. However, a supervisor encouraged her to attend the party, which was held at a local bar. During the party, an associate dean, with supervisory authority over the plaintiff, allegedly made sexual advances toward her that included fondling her, putting his tongue in her ear and pulling her onto his lap. Another department official with supervisory authority allegedly cheered him on.
In early 2012, the plaintiff filed claims of sexual harassment under state and federal anti-discrimination laws, as well common law claims of assault and battery. In November 2012, as we wrote last year, the judge denied the defendant-employer’s motion to dismiss and allowed the case to proceed. After months of discovery and over a year and a half after the plaintiff filed her lawsuit, her employer ultimately agreed to pay her $255,000 to settle her claims. That amount obviously does not include the attorneys’ fees expended by the employer during a protracted time period of motion practice and discovery. Not including the inconveniences to the employer, the total out-of-pocket cost of the case to the employer likely exceeded $350,000 or $400,000.
The lesson for all employers is that the lighthearted, and sometimes drunken, atmosphere at office holiday parties does not equate to a free pass for unwanted touching, lewd comments and other types of inappropriate behavior that otherwise would not be tolerated. As the University of Buffalo Dental School eventually had to recognize when it agreed to settlement, employers who fail to protect themselves can be held liable for workers’ conduct that might easily get out of hand at festive events particularly when there is drinking.
The following are examples of ways employers can reduce the threat of dangerous misbehavior:
Remind employees prior to the event that the company’s code of conduct remains in effect during the event
Establish procedures in advance to handle any inappropriate behavior that might occur
Limit the amount of drinking and provide taxis or other safe transportation home to employees who may be intoxicated
If an employee does come to you with a sexual harassment complaint, please consider it seriously and take prompt action as necessary to investigate and stop the harassment.