Employer May Not Have Affirmative Defense to Harassment Claim even if Employee Fails to Report Harassment

Q:  Does my company have an affirmative defense to a sexual harassment claim if the company has a policy for reporting sexual harassment and an employee never makes a report of sexual harassment under that policy?

A:  Earlier this summer, in a case called Minarsky v. Susquehanna County, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (governing employers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and the Virgin Islands) ruled that “a mere failure to report one’s harassment is not per se unreasonable,” even though the Third Circuit had previously “often found that a plaintiff’s outright failure to report persistent sexual harassment is unreasonable as a matter of law.”

In Minarsky, Thomas Yadlosky was the former Director of the Susquehanna County Department of Veterans Affairs. Over the course of many years, he made unwanted sexual advances toward his part-time secretary, Sheri Minarsky.  Minarsky never reported the conduct, but the County was aware of Yadlosky’s inappropriate behavior regarding two other County employees and had warned him on at least two occasions to stop.  On a nearly weekly basis, Yadlosky engaged in conduct that was clearly inappropriate, including: attempting to kiss Minarsky on the lips, attempting to embrace Minarsky from behind, massaging Minarsky’s shoulders, calling Minarsky at home to ask personal questions; and sending sexually explicit messages from his work email account to Minarsky’s work email account. To make matters worse for Minarsky, she and Yadlosky worked in a building separate from many other County employees. Minarsky testified that she feared speaking up to Yadlosky or protesting the harassment because Yadlosky would become “nasty,” and had warned that Minarsky should not trust county administrators.

Nearly four years into her employment with the County, Minarsky (with the encouragement of her physician) eventually drafted an e-mail to Yadlosky demanding that he stop his conduct. She also confided in a co-worker regarding Yadlosky’s conduct.  The co-worker mentioned the conduct to another employee, a supervisor overheard this conversation, and the supervisor reported the conduct to the Chief County Clerk. The Chief Clerk then interviewed both Minarsky and Yadlosky, and Yadlosky admitted to the allegations. Yadlosky was immediately placed on paid administrative leave, and then terminated.  Minarsky alleged that she continued to feel uncomfortable in her role despite Yadlosky’s termination, however, because her workload increased and her new supervisor asked about what happened with Yadlosky and “who else she had caused to be fired.”

Under pertinent United States Supreme Court case law, an employer has an affirmative defense to a claim of harassment if the employee has not been subject to any adverse employment action (e.g. termination, demotion, etc.) and the employer can show that (a) it exercised reasonable care to avoid harassment and to eliminate it when it might occur, such as with a written harassment policy, employee training, by conducting a prompt and thorough investigation of any complaints, and promptly taking “remedial measures” reasonably calculated to address any inappropriate behavior, and (b) the employee failed to act with reasonable care to take advantage of the employer’s safeguards and otherwise prevent harm that could have been avoided.

In Minarksy, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the County, concluding that the employer proved the affirmative defense as a matter of law because the County maintained an anti-harassment policy and Minarsky had not complained about Yadlosky’s behavior.  On appeal, however, the Third Circuit disagreed and reversed the trial court.

The Third Circuit acknowledged that the County maintained a written anti-harassment policy of which Minarsky was aware. The Court disagreed, however, with the trial court’s conclusion that this fact, standing alone, satisfied the first prong of the affirmative defense. The Third Circuit held that there were factual questions about whether the County acted reasonably to prevent Yadlosky’s behavior and to take prompt remedial measures when it learned of his prior conduct toward other women.   According to the Court, the County had evidence that “Yadlosky’s conduct toward Minarsky was not unique,” and had “seemingly turned a blind eye toward Yadlosky’s harassment.” The Court concluded that a jury should determine whether the County had acted reasonably.

Even more disturbing for employers, the Third Circuit also concluded that there was a factual issue for the jury to decide on the second prong of the affirmative defense, even though it was undisputed that Minarsky failed to report Yadlosky or otherwise utilize the County’s reporting process. In an apparent nod to the #MeToo movement, the Court recognized the current climate of “national news regarding a veritable firestorm of allegations of rampant sexual misconduct that has been closeted for years, not reported by the victims.” The Court noted that, in many of these instances, “the harasser wielded control over the harassed individual’s employment or work environment,” and “the victims asserted a plausible fear of serious adverse consequences had they spoken up at the time that the conduct occurred.” Given this climate, and the facts of the case, the Court wrote that “a jury could conclude that [an] employee’s non-reporting was understandable, perhaps even reasonable.”

Per the Court: “Workplace sexual harassment is highly circumstance-specific, and thus the reasonableness of a plaintiff’s actions is a paradigmatic question for the jury, in certain cases. If a plaintiff’s genuinely held, subjective belief of potential retaliation from reporting her harassment appears to be well-founded, and a jury could find that this belief is objectively reasonable, the trial court should not find that the defendant has proven the second [element of the affirmative defense] as a matter of law. Instead, the court should leave the issue for the jury to determine at trial.”

Some lessons for employers?

  1.  Do not count on the affirmative defense recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court. The only way to eliminate the risk of lawsuits from sexually harassed employees is to actually prevent sexual harassment, and failing that, to take strong action when it occurs. It is not nearly enough for employers to merely have an anti-harassment policy in place. An ineffective or unutilized policy is just as bad as having no policy at all.
  2. Train your employees and managers on company harassment and non-discrimination policies. Foster a work environment that encourages individuals to make reports of harassment or discrimination when they observe inappropriate behavior and then investigate all allegations of discrimination and harassment. Consider creative ways to encourage employees to come forward, such as a method for reporting misconduct anonymously, and a strong non-retaliation policy and environment.
  3. Do not wait for somebody to make a complaint. If managers or human resources personnel are aware that inappropriate conduct is taking place, the company should take affirmative steps to stop the harassment (even if the victim does not want the company to be involved or does not want to “get the harasser in trouble”).
  4. When an investigation concludes that an employee engaged in unlawful harassment, take strong action. Termination may not be the appropriate remedial action in every case.  Minarsky v. Susquehanna County shows, however, that any action short of termination will leave the company exposed – at least to a jury trial—for any unlawful harassment by that employee in the future.
  5. If you currently have an unaddressed serial harasser in the workplace, partner with legal counsel to determine appropriate next steps.

Lee E. Tankle