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The Importance of Supervisor Training

By on August 2, 2017 in Court Rulings with 0 Comments

Time and time again, employment law attorneys remind their clients of the importance of making sure your supervisors are trained to supervise properly.  Supervisors not only need to be continuously trained in how to properly interact with their subordinates and deal with disciplinary issues, but also on their roles in the application of the company’s employment manual, particularly (although not exclusively) the discrimination and harassment policies.  Many times, a lack of training leads to a supervisor’s failure to identify an issue that should be reported to human resources for proper handling.  Unfortunately, this often leads to costly litigation for the company.

On June 13, 2017, the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey issued an opinion in Yeager v. Covenant Sec. Servs., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90243 (Jun. 13, 2017) on a summary judgment motion filed by the Defendant.  The Plaintiff, David Yeager, filed a complaint alleging that he was terminated unlawfully and in retaliation for his support of a former co-worker’s unlawful termination lawsuit against the Defendant, Covenant Security Services, Ltd.

Plaintiff was initially hired in 2011 as a security officer in August 2011.  In October 2011, Plaintiff was promoted to the position of site manager.  Plaintiff received and signed an acknowledgement form for the Company’s Employee Handbook.  The Handbook expressly allowed for complaints of discrimination or harassment to be made to supervisors, but also required supervisors to fill out a “Preliminary Complaint” form and immediately forward the form to human resources.  The Handbook specifically notes that the supervisor does not investigate the complaint.

While Plaintiff was a supervisor, a subordinate (Wadleigh) reported that she was being sexually harassed by another employee, Tucker.  Although Plaintiff filled out the Preliminary Complaint form and had the employee sign it, he noted “no witness need proof” and did not forward the document to human resources.  The next day the subordinate reported a second instance of sexual harassment and again, Plaintiff filled out the Preliminary Complaint form and had the employee sign it.  He again noted “no witness need proof” and did not forward the document to human resources.  A few weeks later, the same subordinate reported a third instance of sexual harassment by the same employee.  Plaintiff once again filled out the Preliminary Complaint form and had the employee sign it.  This time Plaintiff indicted, No witness/need someone Goffney complaint went nowhere.  problem!”  Plaintiff once again failed to forward the document to human resources.  Another two weeks passed and the subordinate reported a fourth incident of sexual harassment.  Plaintiff once again documented the complaint.  He also noted “will set up camera in command center.  But only have her word against his, problem.”  Again, Plaintiff did not forward the document to human resources.

Subsequently, the subordinate who had been reporting sexual harassment claims to Plaintiff was terminated during a June 27, 2013 meeting for poor performance and behavioral issues.  Plaintiff had not yet provided copies of the Preliminary Complaint forms to human resources, but notified an Operation Specialist that the subordinate had complaints.  Plaintiff told the subordinate to bring her written complaints to the meeting, yet she never informed anyone else of the sexual harassment claims at the June 27, 2013 meeting.  Also on June 27, 2013, Plaintiff witnessed Tucker make a racial slur about an individual.  Plaintiff filled out the Preliminary Complaint form and immediately forwarded it to human resources.  Tucker was terminated the following day.  On July 1, 2013, Plaintiff finally reported to human resources that he had documented several complaints from Wadleigh regarding sexual harassment.

In December 2013, Wadleigh filed a complaint pursuant to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination alleging sexual harassment, retaliation and wrongful termination.  Subsequently as part of the discovery process in this matter, Plaintiff was interviewed and admitted that he did not immediately report Wadleigh’s complaints, and according to the notes from the meeting, he conceded that he did not follow the employment policies.  In a subsequent meeting, Plaintiff alleges he told his employers that he did not report Wadleigh’s complaints because in his experience, Covenant did not properly handle sexual harassment complaints if there was no proof of corroboration.  Plaintiff was thereafter fired for “violation of Covenant’s policy and procedures and failure to report sexual harassment.”  Plaintiff then filed a retaliation and wrongful termination claim pursuant to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

The results of this case are irrelevant.  The takeaway is that a supervisor’s failure to follow procedures can lead to costly and time consuming litigation (and a possible judgment or settlement).  In this case, it led to two separate lawsuits from one supervisor’s failure to follow the Company’s policies.  Even if the employer succeeds in the end and is able to show no wrongdoing, the employer won’t get back the cost, time and work put into defending the litigation.  Even if you have Employment Practices Liability Insurance to cover some or all of the litigation costs, a lawsuit will likely lead to higher premiums.  Ensuring your staff is properly trained on policies and procedures on a regular basis is essential.  It may be an upfront cost, but in the long run, it could save your company thousands of dollars and employee hours defending a lawsuit.

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