On February 10, 2016, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a $300,000 judgment for a client of attorney Heather Moore Collins in Smith v. Rock-Tenn Services, Inc. The case was initially tried by Ms. Collins in February of 2014. After a four day jury trial in federal court in Nashville, the jury returned a verdict in favor of her client, Mr. Smith of $307,000. The verdict was later reduced to $300,000 due to the cap on damages under Title VII. Despite such an overwhelming jury verdict, the Defendant, Rock-Tenn, still appealed contending that the jury was not reasonable in its conclusion that Title VII was violated.
Like the jury, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals did not find Rock-Tenn’s argument persuasive. This was a same sex harassment case where the company unsuccessfully attempted to write off deplorable behavior by one of its employees as just “male on male horseplay.” However, the harasser, who had a prior write up for “horseplay/sexual harassment” and a history of touching, grabbing and mooning other men in the workplace, was allowed to get away with the behavior by inaction on the part of Rock-Tenn management. In its decision, the panel emphasized the importance of an employer’s role in addressing complaints of sexual harassment, particularly when dealing with a known harasser. In determining Rock-Tenn failed to respond appropriately, the panel stated:
In this case, a reasonable jury could have concluded that Defendant’s total inaction for ten days, where Defendant knew that Leonard had touched Plaintiff, and had told Leonard that further complaints would result in termination, was unreasonable. Defendant did not separate the two men, suspend Leonard pending an investigation, or initiate its investigation in a timely manner; a reasonable jury could find that the failure to take any of these steps or others rendered its response neither prompt nor appropriate in light of what it knew or should have known regarding Leonard’s prior misconduct.
It was gratifying for the attorneys at Collins & Hunter, PLLC to have this verdict affirmed for its client. More importantly, this opinion emphasized the consequences that companies will face when they allow harassment in the workplace and fail to respond in an appropriate manner. This case also underscores the critical role of jury: that when violations by an employer are brought to a jury of its peers, a jury will hold them accountable.