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Employer Found Not Liable For Racial Harassment

In a February 9, 2017 Decision (Glenda Cable v. FCA US LLC, case number 16-2283), the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit located in Chicago ("the Court") found that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles ("Fiat") was not liable for racial harassment.

THERE WAS RACIAL HOSTILITY IN THE WORKPLACE: What makes this case particularly interesting from a legal perspective is that there was indeed some truly terrible behavior in the workplace which caused the black plaintiff, Glenda Cable, to sue Fiat. Glenda Cable's team leader hung a black voodoo doll from his belt and refused to remove the offensive doll which she asked him to. There were also racially hostile drawings and etchings in the Fiat workplace.

No one disagreed on the facts of this case, but there was disagreement about the legal responsibilities of Fiat. The Court found that Fiat took all reasonable steps to remedy the incidents as they arose. Fiat was not negligent in discovering or remedying the harassment.

EMPLOYER TOOK IMMEDIATE STEPS: This case was not one where there was a negligent supervisor or a supervisor who participated in or ignored the harassment. Rather, when Fiat management learned of these complaints, they took immediate steps to remove these racially hostile elements from the workplace.

For example, with regard to the voodoo doll, Fiat did not act negligently in responding to the employee's display of a voodoo doll. Rather, Fiat promptly demanded he never bring it to work again. As the Court approvingly noted in its decision "thereby promptly stopping this conduct from recurring."

While acknowledging that there was racial hostility in the workplace, the Court noted that Glenda Cable lacked a legal basis to "hold Fiat liable for the racial harassment that she experienced."

REMEDY THE HARASSMENT IMMEDIATELY: The biggest lesson from this very recent case is that companies upon receiving complaints about harassment in the workplace should take immediate steps to uncover and remedy all behaviors and situations complained of. Companies must act fast in removing any discriminatory cartoons, etchings, graffiti, etc. The most dangerous thing a company can do upon discovering discriminatory situations in the workplace is to drag its feet or stick its head in the sand.

TRAIN SUPERVISORS: This case of course also underscores the crucial need for companies to thoroughly train their supervisors (because any complaints of harassment or discrimination must be quickly forwarded from the supervisor to the responsible Human Resources or management person in the company).

For assistance with training managers and supervisors about how to identify and deal with harassment, contact Attorney Nancy E. Joerg who can be reached at Wessels Sherman's St. Charles, Illinois office: 630-377-1554 or email her at najoerg@wesselssherman.com.

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