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Reckless Employer Reaction to Employee Workplace Complaint Leads to More Employer Headaches Reckless Employer Reaction to Employee Workplace Complaint Leads to More Employer Headaches

Reckless Employer Reaction to Employee Workplace Complaint Leads to More Employer Headaches

One interesting recent case highlights the risks when an employer recklessly overreacts to employee complaints about workplace conduct. In Menaker v. Hofstra Univ., 935 F.3d 20 (2d Cir. 2019), Menaker, a male tennis coach at Hofstra University, rejected a freshman woman’s request to increase her athletic scholarship, and her father threatened the coach.

The student then engaged an attorney who alleged that Menaker subjected the student to sexual harassment. The university responded by immediately firing Menaker. He filed suit alleging a violation of Title VII. The trial court dismissed the suit for failure to state a claim and Menaker appealed.

The Second Circuit vacated the district court’s dismissal. The court found that firing coach Menaker could constitute sex discrimination and violate Title VII. It noted that universities may overreact to claims of sexual harassment, stating, “the very same pressures that may drive a university to discriminate against male students accused of sexual misconduct may drive a university to discriminate against male employees accused of the same.”

Here, the court noted the coach contended an inadequate investigation took place before discipline occurred. Indeed, in this case, the university had published procedural guidelines for workplace investigations. The university allegedly ignored those very guidelines. Instead, the plaintiff coach presented a picture of a “knee jerk” reaction by the employer. Sexual harassment allegation by student equals termination—period.

As one can see, the background facts suggest a potential pretext for the student’s allegation, which might well undermine the legitimacy of the sexual harassment complaint. Sadly, we still live in a world where false, exaggerated, or misguided complaints may occur. 

Precedent stands for the general principle that when an employer takes adverse action against the employee in response to allegations of sexual misconduct, and an irregular or inadequate investigation follows, particularly where the employer may be reacting to criticisms of inadequate responses to prior allegations of sexual misconduct, such circumstances provide the requisite support for a prima facie case of sex discrimination. 

Here, the Court of Appeals found clear allegations of an irregular investigation. Furthermore, the allegations of the female student and her parents may well have been motivated at least in part by the coach’s sex and that intent may be imputed to Hofstra. The reaction to the complaint appeared to be a rash and severe disciplinary action: termination of employment. In doing so, the university bought itself a discrimination lawsuit NOT subject to summary dismissal.

What can employers do? First, avoid “knee-jerk” reactions to complaints, no matter how shocking, upsetting, or salacious the first report might be. It remains a complex world, and all sorts of motivations may be at work. “Bias, interest, and prejudice” remain important concepts in litigation when assessing witness testimony and remain equally important in workplace investigations. Second, actually do an investigation. Relying on one or more isolated sources without a thorough investigation invites trouble. Third, consider using an objective third party, such as an outside legal firm, for the investigation. This maximizes the objectivity necessary for a fair and just result. You and your employees deserve no less.

For more information, contact David Carr or another member of the Labor, Employment and Immigration Group.

This publication is intended for general information purposes only and does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice. The reader should consult with legal counsel to determine how laws or decisions discussed herein apply to the reader’s specific circumstances.

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