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Employer's Sexual Harassment Investigation Trumps Emotional Distress Claim

  • April 15, 2000

The U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently dismissed an employee's claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress arising from an employer's sexual harassment investigation. The Second Circuit ruled that courts must examine an employer's investigation from the viewpoint of the employer considering the "worst case scenarios" at the time of the alleged harassment. The threat of negligence claims arising from a sexual harassment investigation cannot deter employers from carrying out their obligations under the law when investigating such alleged misconduct. Malik v. Carrier Corp.

While the plaintiff participated in a leadership training program for new business school graduates, the employer received complaints that the plaintiff had made sexually explicit comments to two female employees and was arrogant toward female employees. Company representatives met with the plaintiff's supervisor, interviewed the complainants, and then met with the plaintiff who admitted that he made one sexually explicit remark but denied the other allegations. Based on its investigation, the company determined that the plaintiff had engaged in unacceptable workplace conduct and noted this in the plaintiff's personnel file. Thereafter, the employer terminated his employment.

The plaintiff sued the company for, among other things, negligent infliction of emotional distress, alleging the company acted negligently in investigating the allegations of sexual harassment and in documenting the incident in his personnel file. After a trial, the jury returned a verdict of $400,000 in favor of the plaintiff. The company appealed to the Second Circuit and argued that it had not acted negligently because federal law required it to investigate the sexual harassment allegations.

The Second Circuit agreed with the company, saying "corrective actions that a risk-averse employer might take to comply with federal law may not give rise to a negligence action." In so holding, the court said it must view an employer's actions at the time of the events when "worst-case scenarios must govern its conduct." An employer cannot stop investigating simply because the accused denies the allegations.

The court held the company was within its rights in documenting the incident in the plaintiff's personnel file because, under a worst-case scenario, the company's failure to do so could lead to liability under federal law. Finally, the court rejected the plaintiff's argument that the company was careless in addressing the issue with his supervisor. "An employer simply cannot be diligent in carrying out an investigation if it must weigh every sentence or question with an eye to whether a jury might later conclude that it unreasonably injured an alleged harasser's psyche." As a result, the court dismissed the plaintiff's negligent infliction of emotional distress claim.

Editor's Note: This case reinforces the importance of conducting thorough investigations into harassment complaints.

©2000 Jackson Lewis P.C. This material is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice nor does it create a client-lawyer relationship between Jackson Lewis and any recipient. Recipients should consult with counsel before taking any actions based on the information contained within this material. This material may be considered attorney advertising in some jurisdictions. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

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