Human Resources News & Insights

‘But he showed me his … Why can’t I sue for sexual harassment?’

Let’s set the scene for a recent lawsuit: A male worker exposed himself to a female co-worker and showed her explicit pictures of himself. Then, word spread about the incident in the workplace. Sounds like a slam-dunk sexual harassment lawsuit, right? 

Not so fast. A U.S. district court in Mississippi ruled in favor of the employer.

It ruled the female worker, Joselyn Davenport, didn’t state a valid sexual harassment claim in her lawsuit. So her suit got tossed.

Here’s how the employer, Nissan North America Inc. was able to prevail despite the lewd acts of one of its employees.

Exposure, elicit photos

It all started when Davenport was assigned to work as a production associate at a Canton Mississippi plant owned by the automotive manufacturer. She worked on an assembly line installing brakes. The assembly line leader was Fred Tate. They were both supervised by Aaron Rodgers (and, no, not this Aaron Rodgers).

Tate exposed his genitals to Davenport at work one day. Davenport then informed a co-worker of the incident, but she didn’t report the incident to Rodgers or any other supervisor.

A couple of months later, Davenport spoke about the incident to another co-worker, who then reported the incident to HR.

During the ensuing investigation, Davenport revealed that Tate had also shown her explicit photographs of himself and made sexual references to her.

Following the investigation, Davenport was transferred to another workstation. She then immediately resigned. She claimed that Tate “glared at her,” which made her quit.

Shortly thereafter, she filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Nissan and claimed the company made her work in a hostile work environment.

Why the employer won

Nissan moved for summary judgment in an attempt to get Davenport’s lawsuit dismissed. Nissan prevailed as the court tossed her lawsuit, ruling she failed to establish a “prima facie” case that Tate’s behavior was severe enough to alter the conditions of her work.

Nissan had a few things in its corner:

  • Davenport didn’t report the incident to the company right away. The court said her initial reaction in telling her co-workers rather than a supervisor implied that she didn’t view Tate’s behavior as very reprehensible or serious.
  • Tate wasn’t Davenport’s direct supervisor. As a result, Davenport wouldn’t have had to take her complaints directly to Tate, but rather to Rodgers. Tate had no authority to fire or discipline her. Therefore, no impediments existed that should’ve prevented Davenport from reporting the incident.
  • The company promptly investigated the incident and moved Davenport to a new workstation so she wouldn’t be near Tate.

As a result, the court felt Nissan acted reasonably in trying to prevent a hostile work environment, and Davenport didn’t use all of the remedies available to her if she truly felt she was being harassed.

Case closed.

Cite: Davenport v. Nissan North America Inc.

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  • Magoolina

    How is it, that someone exposes themselves to another employee and the courts do not immediately call such act “very reprehensible or serious”? I don’t care what her reaction was. The act was very reprehensible. She might have still lost the case, but this part of the judgment is ludicrous.

  • Just Saying

    Seems to me that the line leader should have been the one relocated rather than the production associate that was violated by the exposure if the assertions of exposure were validated in the course of the investigation by the company. Harassment goes unreported precisely because of victims trying to avoid the covert mistreatment that is hard to prove is happening to them once the truth is common knowledge. Being glared at doesn’t meet the legal standard of hostile work environment because of the lack of supervisor/ subordinate relationship meaning less likelihood of retaliatory behaviors having an adverse impact on this lady, but it doesn’t mean she didn’t feel extremely self-conscious when she was the one relocated, not the exposer and put in the position of being made responsible for something that was done to her rather than by her. The company HR bungled this and could have prevented the lawsuit altogether by validating the employees sense of being supported by the employer had it not treated her punitively…psychology 101. Think about it…she downplayed it initially, confided only in peers, and kept working as usual. Once matter was brought to investigation by a peer reporting it, she was being scrutinized and bore the public burden by being the one relocated after the investigation…again, covertly implying she was the problem. While her law suit did not meet the legal standard for hostile work environment and company may have high- fived their attorney for defending their actions, the cost of legal fees and the less- tangible cost to company morale due to employees perception of what REALLY happens if sexual harassment is reported is dangerously high. Doubt the attorneys brought it to the employers attention that litigation was completely avoidable because that’s how they make a living. Good HR practicioners are preemptive in nature…and never forgetting of Maslov’s. People need to feel they matter…never underestimate the circumstances in which loyalty is born in the heart of an employee…once you have that, they will move mountains for you, but fail them when it really matters to them…LITIGATION!