Employees Cannot Dictate Their Employer’s Investigation


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected an employee’s claim that her employer conducted an inadequate investigation into her harassment complaint – even though the harassment stopped – because it did not handle it as she thought it should have been handled.

The employee’s argument combines several aspects of Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination. An employer will be liable under Title VII for co-worker harassment if its response shows indifference or is unreasonable. A failure to investigate, for example, will result in employer liability. Conversely, there is no liability if the employer does prevent further harassment. In addition, Title VII prohibits disparate treatment in the terms and conditions of employment on the basis of sex.

In Garcia v. Beaumont Health Royal Oak Hospital, a female employee who complained of harassment by a female coworker argued that her employer conducted an inadequate investigation, because it would have handled her complaint differently if she had complained about a male co-worker. Here, although the employer’s investigation did not substantiate the complaint, it still warned the coworker against any inappropriate conduct, did not schedule the two to work together again, and directed the employee to report any further incidents (of which there were none).

The Sixth Circuit rejected this “novel” claim that “an employer’s dealings with a coworker, even when that coworker has ceased all harassment, can constitute an adverse employment action against another employee.” Because there were no further incidents of harassment, the Sixth Circuit found both the employer’s response to be reasonable and that the employee’s terms and conditions of employment had not been adversely affected. As the Sixth Circuit summed up, “Title VII affords [the employee] no right to dictate her employer’s dealings with a coworker who is no longer harassing her.”

Although it is reassuring that an employer’s investigation will not be controlled by the employee’s wishes or expectations, employers should still be mindful that their response to a harassment complaint must be prompt, thoughtful, and appropriately calculated to stop any harassment.