Failure to Complain May Preclude Relief

A judge in the Northern District of Illinois recently held that an employee’s failure to complain internally may preclude an employee from maintaining a suit for harassment under Title VII. In Zuidema v. Raymond Christopher, Inc. d/b/a/ Cinnabon, the plaintiff, a recently hired manager, was allegedly subjected to same sex harassment by his trainer, consisting of comments that ranged from summoning plaintiff with “hey sexy, come here” to telling plaintiff that he wanted to take plaintiff “out in the back in the shed and have his way with him.” The trainer also allegedly touched plaintiff on two separate occasions. Some of this behavior was witnessed by the trainer’s female manager, who just laughed it off. Two weeks later, plaintiff complained and quit. In the meantime though, plaintiff’s supervisor had admonished the trainer and stopped the conduct.

In spite of the trainer’s behavior – and plaintiff’s repeated requests for his trainer to stop – the court granted summary judgment for the employer. The court found that plaintiff had established that (1) plaintiff’s work environment was objectively and subjectively offensive, (2) the harassment was based on plaintiff’s sex, and (3) the trainer’s behavior was sufficiently pervasive to be actionable. Nonetheless, the court found there was no basis for employer liability because the trainer was not the plaintiff’s “supervisor.” Consequently, the employer could only be liable for a non-supervisor’s harassment if it was negligent in controlling working conditions. The court concluded that the employee’s supervisor took prompt corrective action, which had stopped the “harassment” even before the plaintiff quit.

As evidenced by this case, employers should ensure that all supervisors are trained to properly recognize and promptly respond to situations where behavior may be interpreted as harassing – even if such behavior is not formally reported. Failure to do so may subject an employer to both harassment and constructive discharge suits under both state and federal laws.