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  • Following the Rules: From the Courtroom to Real-Life

    Facts and Procedural Posture

    Rosalio Gutierrez, the manager of an International House of Pancakes (IHOP) restaurant in Racine, Wisconsin violated the franchise’s sexual harassment policy when he sexually and physically abused two teenage employees. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought suit on behalf of waitresses, Katrina Shisler and Michelle Powell, against IHOP, the restaurant’s HR consulting firm, Flipmeastack Inc., and the owner of the franchise, Salauddin Janmohammed. Shisler testified that Gutierrez uttered inappropriate comments and propositioned her for sex. Powell testified that she was physically accosted by Gutierrez and claimed that he often pulled her hair and pushed himself up against her while making sexually suggestive comments. Although Powell reported Gutierrez’s unlawful behavior to Michelle Dahl, the restaurant’s general manager, her complaint was shrugged off, and no action was taken to deal with the issue.

    The U.S. District Court held that all three defendants were jointly liable, it awarded injunctive relief against Flipmeastack, the entity to blame for hiring Gutierrez, and denied the defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law. The 7th Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion for judgment, but reversed its allowance of the EEOC’s post-trial motions.

    The court held that a rational jury could have determined that the female employees were exposed to a hostile work environment.

    The Rules: Hostile Environment Claims and How They Can be Eliminated

    A hostile work environment is created when inappropriate sexual behavior repeatedly occurs in the workplace. The harassment suffered by the employee at the hands of the employer or co-worker must be considered so severe and pervasive that it disrupts the employee’s employment. Courts have refused to acknowledge isolated incidents that are not extremely serious, occasional instances of debatable harassment occurring over an extended period of time, and normal work-related interaction among employees as establishing the frequent factor. Additionally, in order for harassment to be severe, it must be more than mere horseplay or the use of gender-related jokes and teasing, and it must be considered within the context in which it occurred.

    The Court should hold an employer liable for its employees’ misconduct if it has actual notice of the harassing behavior, but fails to take prompt or appropriate remedial action. An employer may have actual notice if the victimized employee follows the procedures required of her by the business’s sexual harassment policy. Appropriate action is taken when the anti-harassment policy is effectively disseminated and provides a clear method for reporting violations and when the employer adheres to the policy, in a reasonably prompt manner, to correct the harassment and to prevent it from recurring. Anyone who believes he or she may be a victim of sexual harassment should speak with a sexual harassment lawyer in Orange County.

    The 7th Circuit determined that Gutierrez’s comments were sufficiently offensive and constituted more than simple teasing. Moreover, although the defendants had an anti-harassment policy in place, a jury could have found that the policy and procedure were not effective and that proper curative action was not taken. Flipmeastack’s policy did not designate an individual to receive complaints nor did it provide any contact information at all. Further, the fact that the plaintiff employees complained to Dahl about the harassment, but she neglected to take action, suggests that the company’s management training was fruitless and that the policy’s safeguards were deceptive. In other words, although the rules were established, they did not serve their purpose in protecting the employees, and thus could not be relied upon to protect the defendants from liability.

    Strict Adherence to the Rules: Can it Lead to Unjust Results?

    Although the court found that a hostile work environment existed, it also determined that the district court was incorrect in holding Flipmeastack liable for Gutierrez’s misconduct and that the decision, as to its legal responsibility, should have been a question reserved for the jury.

    Therefore, the issue of Flipmeastack’s corporate liability was reversed and remanded, and the injunction, which enjoined the company from “allowing a sexually hostile work environment to exist” and demanded that a more efficient harassment training program be implemented, was dissolved. This decision demonstrates that adherence to the rules are not only important in the workplace, but are also paramount in the courtroom as well, since the outcome may have been different had the issue of the franchise’s liability been framed differently and presented to a jury. However, it also raises the question of whether complying with the rules may lead to unfair results since the waitresses may or may not ultimately receive the justice they deserve. To learn more about the rules associated with sexual harassment, one should consult a sexual harassment lawyer in Orange County.