Third Circuit Keeps the Peace but Dismisses Her Lawsuit

judge_in_robes_with_gavelThe Third Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Delaware) recently issued a reassuring decision for employers. In the case, the Court affirmed dismissal of racial discrimination and retaliation claims where there were no overt racial statements made by supervisors and the employer addressed all allegations promptly and in a manner reasonably calculated to prevent further harassment.

Facts of the Case

Janeka Peace-Wickham, who was African-American, was hired as a manager in the Café at the Delaware Memorial Bridge facility of the Delaware River and Bay Authority (DRBA). Her position was that of a “working supervisor” and she was expected to fill in as needed with cooking, cashiering, and serving. Shortly after she began employment, she got into a heated argument with a Caucasian co-worker, which resulted in both of them filing claims of racial harassment against the other. Peace alleged that some of the Café customers (primarily DRBA employees) made racially inappropriate remarks. She claimed to overhear one customer remark to another when she was not happy the way her meal was prepared, “back in the day, down South, blacks would have been hung for things like this.”

Another customer remarked to Peace that the Café had “changed” since Peace’s arrival, and Peace took this to be motivated by racial animus because the previous supervisor was caucasian. Peace also alleged that a customer had balled up receipts and thrown them at her. Following the departure of the Café Supervisor, who was also African-American, someone posted a sign at the Café which said “Free At Last , Free At Last, Thank God Almighty, Free at Last,” which Peace took to be directed at her because she was the only African-American employed at the Café at that time.

Served up with a healthy dose of complaints

A mere three months into her employment, Peace complained of harassment from the Caucasian co-worker, and things only got worse from there. She routinely complained of understaffing in the Café and about how she was treated by customers as well as fellow employees in the Café. By the time she was done she’d filed numerous internal complaints, two charges of discrimination with the Delaware Department of Labor, and claimed that her rejection for a promotion was the result of her race and the fact she’d filed charges.

The Proof is In the Pudding, or Remedial Measures

The Court ruled that the DRBA was not liable for discrimination or retaliation. It noted that the record was devoid of any overtly discriminatory statements or conduct by her supervisors. While such conduct was not required to show intentional discrimination, the presence or absence of such conduct proves helpful in determining the motives of the decisionmakers. Here, the Court said the fact that Peace could not point to any overtly discriminatory conduct on the part of her supervisors lent further support to the conclusion that supervisors could not be held directly responsible for any hostile environment that may have existed.

Most importantly, however, the Court found that the DRBA took appropriate remedial steps in response to allegations of discrimination once it became aware of them. In response to Peace’s complaints that it took to long to investigate and conclude her initial harassment claim, the DRBA revised its investigation procedures. It also posted anti-harassment signs and instituted diversity and harassment training for all employees. While the DRBA did take longer to investigate Peace’s complaint than her co-worker’s, it addressed the issue immediately by separating the two employees. The Court held that these measures fell “comfortably within the realm of legally adequate legal measures.”

The Court further stated that it was “unwilling to step into the shoes of DRBA management, as suggested by Peace-Wickham, and make highly particularized judgments as to whether the DRBA should have docked pay, demoted, or withdrawn certain fringe benefits instead of following the course of action chosen here.”

Bottom Line

Employers can take comfort that as long as it takes steps “reasonably calculated to end the harassment” once it becomes aware of allegations, it will not be liable for a hostile work environment. Diversity and harassment training, in particular, were compelling to the Court in this case.