Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Vague complaint dooms employee’s retaliation lawsuit

Susanne Pintagro worked for Sagamore Hills Township as an administrative assistant. When a newly hired intern made her feel “uncomfortable and concerned for [her] safety” she took her concerns to the township’s trustees. The trustees determined that because Ms. Pintagro and the intern had to work the same schedule, and gave her the choice of resignation or termination. After Ms. Pintagro resigned, she sued, claiming, among other things, that the township retaliated against her for reporting the intern’s workplace harassment.

In Pintagro v. Sagamore Hills Twp. (Ohio Ct. App. 5/23/12), the court of appeals affirmed the dismissal of her retaliation claim. It concluded that Ms. Pintagro had not engaged in protected activity sufficient to raise the protections of Ohio’s anti-retaliation statute:

It was Ms. Pintagro’s burden … to establish that she engaged in a protected activity, that is, to demonstrate that she “opposed an unlawful discriminatory practice” such as harassment because of her “race, color, religion, sex, military status, national origin, disability, age, or ancestry.” …

Ms. Pintagro also has not presented any authority for her argument that a court should infer discriminatory intent when an employer fails to investigate a claim of workplace harassment…. Even assuming that [the] actions constituted harassment, it is as likely that his conduct was motivated by a personality conflict or other non-discriminatory reasons as it is that it was motivated by prejudice.

In other words, because Ms. Pintagro could not prove that she complained about unlawful harassment, her retaliation claim failed.

Repeat after me:

We will not do what Sagamore Hills Township did in this case.

When an employee comes to you with a complaint about a co-worker, do not ignore it, do not fail to investigate it, and do not fire the employee (or force her to resign). Yes, you might successfully defend a subsequent retaliation lawsuit based on the vagueness of the complaint. But, you might also step in a huge pile. This court refused to interpret a woman’s complaint than a man made her “uncomfortable and concerned for [her] safety” as a complaint about sexual harassment. Another court, however, could just as easily conclude that a jury should have the final say in interpreting that complaint.