In Pryor v. United Air Lines, Inc., the plaintiff, an African-American flight attendant, complained to United after she found a note in her company mailbox with a drawing of a person hanging from a noose accompanied by the “n-word” and language encouraging the hunting and killing of African-Americans. She immediately complained to her supervisor, but he failed to escalate the matter in the manner required by United’s Harassment and Discrimination Policy. Other United supervisors also failed to follow the policy’s reporting protocol, despite the seriousness of the racist death threat and the circulation of other racist remarks at United’s Dulles Airport facility concerning other African-American flight attendants. When the police sought to investigate, the supervisors were uncooperative. United then closed its investigation without informing the plaintiff. Plaintiff later filed a complaint alleging hostile work environment in violation of Section 1981 and Title VII.
Failure to investigate all good faith complaints of harassment can result in serious liability for the employer under the anti-discrimination statutes.
Renee Pryor, A United flight attendant and employee since 1984, apparently did all the right things when she received an anonymous note that she felt threatened her life.
The case first was heard in District Court where the court ruled in United's favor. The case was appealed to the three-judge appeals court that agreed with the plaintiff that United could have done more to investigate the source of the threat.
The appeals court sent the case back to the District Court noting in it's decision that “Indeed, a reasonable jury could find that United's response was instead reluctant and reactive, intended to minimize any disruption to day-to-day operations instead of identifying a perpetrator and deterring future harassment,” said the appeals panel in reinstating the case."
Even if United prevails, and give the Appeals Court decision that seems not likely, the airline is the loser.
- It has paid attorney fees.
It's witnesses have lost time from work.
It's image has been (further) tarnished.
Apparently the anonymous note writer is based at Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia; Pryor since has been transferred to George Bush International Airport in Houston, where she has not reported any further race-related incidents.
United had policies and procedures in place, but apparently its supervisors either ignored the P&Ps or determined that they applied to someone else.
BOTTOM LINE for Risk Management practitioners: Policies and Procedures sans regular training and retraining of personnel - from the new hire to the most senior executive - must be ongoing to assure that at least the organization has done its due diligence.
That may not stop a law suit, but it might mitigate the severity of a fine if the courts rule against the organization.
- Federal Court Says Employer Can Be Liable for Acts of Anonymous Harasser
Pryor v. United Air Lines, Inc., No. 14-1442 (4th Cir. 2015)