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New trial ordered after jury wrongly found employer not aware of supervisor’s sexual harassment

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

Two female employees were entitled to a new trial on their unsuccessful Title VII and state law claims alleging supervisor sexual harassment, since the jury erred in finding that they failed to show the company knew or should have known about the harassment. Granting their motion for a new trial, a federal court in Washington concluded that even if the jury found the employees’ claims that they reported the alleged harassment to a manager on several occasions less credible than the manager’s denials of such conversations, other evidence relating to complaints about the harasser should have ended any doubt that the employer knew harassment was occurring (EEOC v. Trans Ocean Seafoods, Inc., September 8, 2017, Jones, R.).

Jury finds no liability. The employees claimed they were sexually harassed by their immediate supervisor and other male workers while working as clam harvesters. Following a trial, the jury found that the evidence did not establish that their employer knew or should have known about the supervisor’s or others’ harassment of the two of them. They moved for a new trial.

Knowledge about harassment of another not enough. The two employees first argued that evidence regarding a sexual complaint against the supervisor by a female coworker, and the subsequent investigation and discipline, showed that the company had the requisite knowledge of harassment. However, knowledge of a hostile work environment as to one victim cannot be imputed to all alleged victims. Therefore, this evidence was insufficient, by itself, to establish that the company had knowledge that the two employees were themselves being harassed.

Arguably reported own harassment. However, there was more. The employees also provided evidence showing that they had themselves reported the supervisor’s sexual harassment to their operations manager before filing their EEOC charge—once at an off-site meeting and a second time while at the processing plant. Moreover, the other female coworker had also complained to the operations manager that the supervisor was not only continuing to sexually harass her, but also other female employees.

Manager denies employees’ version of events. At trial, the manager claimed that he did not remember the off-site meeting. When asked about an “all employee” meeting at the processing plant, he stated that all employees were warned not to use “strong language,” that the warning was not issued to the harassing male supervisor in particular, and that the meeting had been fueled by a complaint from male truck driver. Though the jury presumably considered all the witnesses’ credibility, and credited the manager’s testimony over the others, the court could weigh the evidence and assess the credibility of the witnesses when considering whether to grant a new trial.

Evidence weighs against him. Due to the disparity in testimony between the parties’ witnesses, the court considered that it was undisputed that the supervisor had previously received a verbal warning after a complaint had been made about his inappropriate use of “sexual language.” It was also undisputed that after the female coworker told the operations manager that the supervisor was sexually harassing her and other female employees, the manager met with the supervisor and gave him a second warning. This evidence, coupled with the compelling testimony of the two employees and two female coworkers, outweighed the operations manager’s testimony and his version of these events.

Even if, as the employer contended, the operations manager was unable to substantiate the female coworker’s claim that the supervisor was harassing other women, the company undisputedly had notice that there were prior complaints about his harassing behavior. Moreover, even if the jury credited the operations manager’s testimony contradicting the employees’ claim that they reported they were being sexually harassed by the supervisor, there was still ample evidence that the employer had notice of the supervisor’s behavior for at least a year. Thus, it should have known that the harassment was occurring.

Accordingly, because the jury’s verdict finding that the employees failed to show the employer knew or should have known about the harassment was contrary to the clear weight of the evidence, the court granted the employees’ motion for a new trial.