In a recent Ninth Circuit case, Westendorf v. West Coast Contractors, plaintiff Jennifer Westendorf claimed that sexual harassment by a co-worker created a hostile work environment and interfered with her ability to perform her job duties. When her supervisor failed to address the upsetting behavior, and then joined in on at least one occasion, Westendorf took her concerns to company president Mario Ramirez. To her relief Ramirez dutifully investigated her complaint and reprimanded the employees involved. Ultimately, however, the offending behavior continued. And, much to Westendorf’s dismay, Ramirez decided that the best solution was to terminate her for “creating too much drama.”
An internal investigation following an employee’s complaint about harassment or discrimination is usually a good sign because it means that the employer is taking the employee’s concerns seriously. (It is amazing how many times our employment discrimination attorneys
see employers who simply ignore such complaints!) Unfortunately, sometimes an employer’s internal investigation isn’t really geared toward discovering and solving problems. In fact, it might be geared toward discovering ways to retaliate against the complaining employee.
Following her termination, Westendorf sued her former employer alleging that she was subject to a hostile work environment due to sexual harassment and was terminated in retaliation for her complaints about the hostile work environment. She brought the claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace as well as retaliation against those who report such behavior.
In response, Westendorf’s former employer, West Coast Contractors, Inc., argued that the co-worker and supervisor’s conduct was not severe enough to create a hostile work environment. The employer further argued that, because there was no hostile work environment, the decision to fire Westendorf could not qualify as retaliation for reporting a hostile work environment.
On appeal, the Circuit Court agreed that Westendorf had failed to allege facts sufficient to support her hostile work environment claim. Nevertheless, the Court held that Westendorf could proceed on her claim for retaliation.
The Court reasoned that, although the conduct was not severe or frequent enough to create a hostile work environment under Title VII, it was severe and frequent enough for Westendorf to reasonably believe that a hostile work environment existed. Since Westendorf reasonably believed that a hostile work environment existed, her act of reporting the conduct to the company’s president was protected from retaliation. To hold otherwise would empower employers to retaliate against employees who report the conduct early enough for the employer to nip the conduct in the bud or who incorrectly believe that they are the object of illegal sexual harassment. Holding otherwise would also have a chilling effect on employees’ willingness to report inappropriate conduct.
The employment attorneys at The Spitz Law Firm are accustomed to dealing with employers who, sadly, blame or ignore the victim because they do not want to spend the time or resources to properly train and discipline employees regarding sexual harassment. It’s a decision most employers eventually regret. As Westendorf’s case demonstrates, even if the underlying discrimination claim fails, a retaliation claim (as well as other claims) may still succeed. By pursuing these related claims, a plaintiff can often receive a settlement or judgment that is equal to, or even greater than, what might be expected based on the underlying discrimination claim.
The bottom line is this: an overlooked claim can be a serious missed opportunity. If you even think that you have been the victim of sexual harassment or other discrimination at work, it is important to contact an experienced employment attorney who will look beyond the surface of your situation to discover each potential claim you may have.
If you feel that you are being sexually harassed or or being retaliated against for reporting sexual harassment, you should not wait to call the right attorney at 866-797-6040 to schedule a free and confidential consultation. At The Spitz Law Firm, you will meet with a sexual harassment lawyer/hostile work environment attorney to find out what your legal rights are and the best way to protect them. Sexual harrassment is a form of gender discrimination, and employers should be held accountable if they discriminate against female workers in any fashion – but particularly for sexual harrassment.
The materials available at this gender discrimination and employment law website are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. It is best contact an Ohio sexual harassment attorney/hostile work environment lawyer to obtain advice with respect to sexual harassment/hostile work environment questions or any particular employment law issue. Use and access to this employment law website or any of the links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship. The legal opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual lawyer and may not reflect the opinions of The Spitz Law Firm or any individual attorney.