Human Resources News & Insights

Can’t use earlier bias complaints as an excuse for sexual harassment: Court

No question, it’s often easier for employees to prove they were victims of retaliation after filing bias complaints than it is to prove the discrimination occurred in the first place. That’s why smart organizations act quickly and decisively to investigate complaints — and protect themselves from legal headaches down the road. Here’s a prime example. 

Gary Vaughn was a long-time employee of the U.S. Forest Service, working primarily at a training center in Illinois.

His was a long, twisted legal tale. He filed numerous complaints with the agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity representative, alleging race discrimination, age discrimination and retaliation. Most of those charges were handled administratively, but one eventually went to court. Vaughn and the Department of Agriculture (the Forest Service’s parent agency) finally agreed to a settlement.

There’s a second thread to the story. During the time when Vaughn was filing his complaints, he was apparently in a five-year romantic relationship with another employee at the training center.

Didn’t last long

But a few months after their breakup, the woman notified Vaughn’s supervisor that Vaughn was harassing her at work. The supervisor sat Vaughn and the woman down, had a discussion, and both employees agreed to limit telephone and in-person contact to work-related issues.

Less than a month later, however, the woman accused Vaughn of not honoring their “work-related-only” contact agreement.  After an investigation, agency management placed Vaughn on administrative leave. The woman petitioned for, and got, an order of protection from a state court.

Vaughn met twice with a psychotherapist, who was to make the call on whether Vaughn was capable of returning to work.

The psychotherapist concluded that, although Vaughn was mentally capable of returning, his “‘narcissistic’ tendencies would predictably exacerbate an already strained workplace environment with (the woman).”

The psychotherapist also reported that Vaughn had acknowledged that the woman received the order of protection “due to his obsessive/compulsive contacts and phone calls with her and difficulty accepting the end of the relationship.”

The Forest Service allowed Vaughn to return to work, but in a different role so he wouldn’t have contact with the woman. But then, after one of his internal EEO complaints had been mediated, he was reassigned to his old job — which again brought him into regular contact with the woman.

And a few months later, the woman filed yet another internal complaint against Vaughn, alleging he continued to harass her. Among other issues, employees also reported seeing Vaughn following the woman’s car in the parking lot, pulling in front of her and slowing down. Management again warned Vaughn to back off.

Finally, a few months later, the woman filed an EEOC sexual harassment claim, saying that management had failed to stop Vaughn’s continuous harassing behavior. An eventual settlement included financial compensation for the woman and a promise that Vaughn couldn’t be on the job site during her working hours.

Management changed his hours from a daytime schedule to 3:30 p.m. to midnight Wednesday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays — an arrangement that would eliminate the possibility of the two running into each other.

Chapter Two

You probably think the story ends here. Alas, no.

Vaughn filed suit against the Dept. of Agriculture, charging that management had retaliated against him for his previous bias claims by changing his work schedule and denying overtime and other opportunities that had gone to other workers.

The agency argued the changes in Vaughn’s work experience were necessary to comply with the harassment settlement.

An appeals court ruled that Vaughn’s claim of retaliation couldn’t stand up — and even if it could, “an employee who sexually harasses a co-worker cannot be considered to be meeting his employer’s legitimate expectations by any stretch of the imagination.”

The court reviewed the employer’s reactions to the woman’s harassment complaint and said it “was permissible for it to act on (the) evidence to protect its employee and maintain the effectiveness of the office.”

The case is Vaughn v. Vilsack.

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