Could a judge force you to provide anti-harassment training if you create a hostile work environment? Maybe not.

Over the weekend, I read about a case where a federal jury concluded that a female plaintiff’s former employer subjected her to a hostile work environment.

The jury awarded her zero point zero dollars, and a federal appellate court concluded that the company should not be required to conduct anti-harassment training.

WTH?!?

Here is a copy of the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion.

She won, but got no money?

It doesn’t happen often.

In this particular case, the court instructed the jury that it could only hold the employer responsible for a hostile work environment if it concluded that the plaintiff’s supervisors (or someone with proper authority) knew or should have known of the hostile work environment and permitted it to continue by not correcting the problem.

And the jury concluded that, yes, the employer knew about the problem and failed to remediate.

As to the question of damages, the court told the jury that it could not consider any damages related solely to the plaintiff’s suspension or discharge from the company because she had not asserted any such claim. However, it could award her damages for pain and suffering. The plaintiff presented evidence that she could not sleep, had nightmares, feared for her safety, gained weight, started drinking again, and was depressed. But, the jury did not award her anything.

Nada.

It’s possible that the jury concluded that the plaintiff had failed to prove any damages. Or maybe she was damaged but not entitled to any money for the injury she suffered.

Either way, the jury’s verdict was allowed to stand.

And no training either? Jeez.

Undeterred, the plaintiff asked the trial court for equitable relief, among other things, to require the defendant-company to re-train company management regarding Title VII compliance.

A trial court has the power to award equitable relief. Using that power, the trial court here did grant the plaintiff’s request to have the employer provide anti-harassment training.

But, the appellate court reversed. Why?

Because in the Eleventh Circuit, the courts can only provide equitable relief where the individual plaintiff will benefit. In this instance, the defendant-company no longer employed the plaintiff. So, requiring it to perform anti-harassment training, the court reasoned, would not help the plaintiff. Had the plaintiff requested reinstatement, the court could have ordered reinstatement and training. But, the plaintiff did not request reinstatement.

Now, your mileage may vary. Hopefully, you’re never in the situation of arguing what equitable relief a federal judge should impose against your business for the hostile work environment you permitted. But, if you are, don’t be surprised if the court orders that you conduct training — even if you don’t have to reinstate the plaintiff. (You should probably train anyway.)

Further, the odds that you’ll not have to get your checkbook after losing a federal jury trial are slim and none.

 

“Doing What’s Right – Not Just What’s Legal”