Court Rules That Employer May Be Liable For Actions Of An Anonymous Harasser
On July 1, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the case of Pryor v. United Air Lines, Inc., that a jury will be allowed to decide whether or not United Airlines should be held liable for failing to investigate an anonymous, racially-oriented note left in an employee's company mailbox.
The Plaintiff, Ms. Pryor, an African-American, was employed as a flight attendant with United. She found a note in her company mailbox with a drawing of a noose and language encouraging the hunting and killing of African Americans. Ms. Pryor took the note as a threat and immediately reported it to her supervisor. Despite the threatening nature of the note, the supervisor did not investigate the matter. Rather, he passed the note up-stream to his supervisor, who also failed to investigate the matter.
United claimed that its employees did not meaningfully investigate the note because there were no security cameras in the area and Ms. Pryor could not provide them with any suspects. United argued that conducting an investigation into such an inflammatory issue without some direction would unnecessarily interrupt its operations and have a very small chance of identifying the offender.
The Court of Appeals determined that there was ample evidence from which a jury could find that United did not act reasonably when it failed to fully investigate the offensive note.
"We can, however, confidently say on this record that a reasonable jury could conclude that the response United actually chose was neither prompt nor reasonably calculated. Indeed, a reasonable jury could find that United's response was instead reluctant and reactive, intended to minimize any disruption to day-to-day operations instead of identifying a perpetrator and deterring future harassment....Even if a diligent reasons may not have been successful, a company is not thereby excused for its lack of diligence..." -
This decision makes it clear once again that employers must act reasonably when investigating complaints of harassment, even in situations where the offending party is anonymous and an investigation is unlikely to result in his identification. The very act of conducting a prompt and reasonable investigation designed to end the harassment will serve as a defense even if the investigation is fruitless.