Can an employee sue you for conclusions reached during an internal harassment complaint? According to the 6th Circuit in Courie v. Alcoa Wheel & Forged Products (8/18/09) [PDF], the answer is no.
Someone left an inappropriate note on an Alcoa cafeteria table where African-American employees sat. Alcoa’s HR department interviewed Courie during its investigation. Courie could not recall the name of the person sitting with him at that table on the day the note was left. Because he could not recall his co-worker’s name, he referred to him as “Jew Boy.” After the interview, Alcoa later sent Courie a warning that it considered that term “racially offensive.” In response, Courie filed a grievance with his union.
Courie later learned that Alcoa and his union had considered settling his original dispute by removing the discipline in exchange for a concession that the statement was inappropriate and that Alcoa reacted appropriately. Based on that proposed settlement, Courie sued Alcoa and his union. claiming discrimination, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and defamation.
The court upheld the lower court’s decision dismissing all of Courie’s claims:
The discrimination claim failed because the settlement agreement was not an “adverse action.” Indeed, according to the court, it was the opposite of adverse – it proposed to remove the traces of the original written warning from his record.
Because the proposed settlement agreement was not discriminatory, it could not support a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
While the court did not address the defamation claim, I’ve previously noted that employers enjoy a (qualified) privilege for statements made during internal investigations.
So, what does this mean for employers? Reasoned rationales for the conclusions reached and discipline imposed during an internal investigation are paramount. The target of an investigation should not be able to come back at you for discrimination, defamation, or anything else in the kitchen sink if all your ducks are in a row.
Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.