Employers must Investigate Sexual Harassment Complaints to Reduce Risk of Punitive Damages

When in doubt, investigate – carefully and thoroughly. That’s the message again delivered to employers by a recent decision of Massachusetts’ highest court. When an employee complains about sexual mistreatment or other discrimination, it’s critical that he/she be taken seriously and that appropriate remedies be implemented to address any allegation that is borne out by a fair investigation.

Lexus of Watertown learned this lesson the hard way recently. After its former employee filed suit for sexual harassment, among other things, a jury awarded her $40,000 for emotional distress and another $500,000 in punitive damages. On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court rejected Lexus’s argument that it did not act badly enough to justify a punitive damages award, which can be used to punish employers only in cases of outrageous or egregious misconduct.  Lexus, the court found, exposed itself to a punitive damages award because it did not adequately investigate its employee’s complaints after it learned about them. Those complaints were later proved true at trial, at least to some degree.

“Where the employer is aware of a sexually hostile or offensive work environment, the potential for punitive damages against the enterprise is triggered and an inquiry into the response by the employer is warranted….The failure to do so opens the door to the potential imposition of punitive damages if the jury conclude that the employer’s failure was sufficiently outrageous and egregious,” the SJC found.

Although Lexus of Watertown in fact conducted an investigation, the court found that it was inadequate. It was conducted by a supervisor who doubted the complainant from the outset, did not include interviews of all relevant personnel, and did not involve the complaining employee. Though the investigation did not corroborate any of the complaints, a former manager had previously circulated a memo regarding the harasser’s inappropriate behavior. At trial, many of the complaints were corroborated by testimony. Other employers should learn from this case. All complaints should be investigated fairly by an impartial person. Counsel should either guide the investigation or conduct it.