On June 8 the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals issued an important decision that clarifies an issue important to corporate liability for sexual harassment. The case is Huston v. Procter & Gamble Paper Products Corp.
Here are the facts in brief. Priscilla Huston worked at P&G's Mehoopany plant on a team of technicians that ran large paper manufacturing machines. Huston, who had a disciplinary history, was fired for falsifying machine data logs. She sued, claiming that she was the victim of hostile work environment sexual harassment and retaliation. The trial court ruled against her.
The issue on appeal to the 3rd Circuit was narrow: whether P&G knew of the alleged harassment through the machine supervisors who were aware of it and nonetheless failed to take prompt remedial action. The court held that the machine supervisors — despite having limited supervisory functions — were not of a level sufficient to impute knowledge of the harassment to P&G. To put it plainly, knowledge of facts pertaining to aleged sexual harassment was not material to their jobs, which were limited to supervising work on the machines.
Thus, the court found that "an employee's knowledge of sexual harassment will be imputed to the employer where the employee is specifically employed to deal with sexual harassment. Typically such an employee will be part of the employer's human resources, personnel, or employee relations group or department."
There are a couple of lessons here. If you are an employer, and especially a small employer without a well-defined corporate structure, publish a policy that defines who in the management structure is authorized to deal with harassment. If not, you're leaving it to an unknown court to make the decision for you, and you may not be happy with the result.
If you are an employee with a harassment complaint, be sure to get the facts to someone in management who indisputably has the responsibility, as part of his or her job function, to deal with such things. Fail to do so and an effort to vindicate your rights in court will probably fail.