January 1996

Workplace Labor Update - Prompt Response Defeats Sexual Harassment Claim – January 1996

3 min

An employer may avoid liability for sexual harassment by taking prompt and effective remedial action in response to an employee’s complaint. This is the ruling issued by the federal appellate court with jurisdiction over Maryland and Virginia, in the case of Spicer v. Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Corrections, 66 F.3d. 705 (4th Cir. 1995).

Peggy Spicer, a rehabilitation counselor for the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC), worked in a facility that maintained a dress code prohibiting employees from provocative dress that might arouse inmates. After receiving a visitor complaint regarding Spicer’s attire, the security force captain wrote a memo to the warden. The memo stated that Spicer wore short dresses and graphically described her appearance when wearing overly revealing blouses, as well as complaining about several other female employees’ attire. The warden forwarded the memo to the supervisors of the employees involved, directing them to take appropriate action, but neglecting to label the memo as confidential. Two supervisors read the memo aloud at staff meetings.

After the staff meetings, several of Spicer’s male co-workers made sexually offensive comments to her. Spicer complained to her immediate supervisor and asked to speak with the warden, who agreed to meet with her the following morning. Instead of waiting to meet with the warden, Spicer called the DOC’s Equal Employment Officer. After learning of Spicer’s complaint from the Equal Employment Officer, the warden promptly investigated the situation. First, the warden assured that the memo was not publicly posted. He then met individually with Spicer and most of the women mentioned in the memo to assess their concerns. The warden then admonished those making inappropriate sexual remarks that such conduct would not be tolerated and threatened further disciplinary action if the conduct continued. Finally, the warden counseled the supervisors involved in writing and distributed a memo about treating such matters more sensitively. On the day after Spicer’s complaint, the Equal Employment Officer conducted a sexual harassment training session for facility employees. A second session was held approximately one month later. After concluding the investigation and taking remedial action, the warden sent Spicer a letter, chronicling the steps taken by DOC to address her complaint and requesting that she inform him if the offensive behavior continued. Spicer acknowledged that after she complained about the harassment, no one made any more offensive comments to her.

The appeals court held that although the comments Spicer complained of were severe enough to create a sexually abusive work environment, the DOC’s prompt response to her complaint relieved it of liability for the offensive behavior. The steps taken by the DOC represented an appropriate response, especially in light of the fact that the offensive comments ceased the very day Spicer lodged her complaint with the DOC’s Equal Employment Officer. The Court found that to hold an employer liable after it takes prompt and effective action which completely ends the offensive conduct, would be tantamount to imposing strict liability for all inappropriate employee conversations.

This decision teaches an important lesson, that in order to avoid liability for sexual harassment, an employer’s response to a complaint must be both prompt and effective. It is not required that the remedial action be the most effective, but the action must be sufficient enough to end the offensive conduct. Employers should take all sexual harassment complaints seriously and initiate an immediate response.