Fifth Circuit Decision Highlights Importance of Harassment Reporting Policies

This week, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the summary judgment dismissal of an employee’s claim that he experienced a hostile work environment because of his disabilities—namely, stuttering and anxiety problems.[1] The decision rests on the plaintiff’s failure to internally complain about alleged harassment, and shows just how important workplace reporting policies are. 

The plaintiff employee in Patton v. Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc. suffered a stutter and anxiety problems.  He complained that his coworkers relentlessly called him names and mocked his stutter, to his face, which exacerbated his anxiety and caused him to suffer a panic attack and get into a car accident. The district court granted summary judgment in the employer’s favor, meaning the plaintiff’s case was dismissed with prejudice, and he could not proceed to trial. The district court found that, among other things, the plaintiff failed to report complaints about harassment as required by his employer’s employee handbook.[2]

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment. The court found that the mocking alleged by the plaintiff rose above simple teasing and offhand comments, and that the plaintiff presented enough evidence to show that his harassment was severe and pervasive.[3] Nevertheless, the court found that the plaintiff’s failure to internally report alleged harassment to human resources pursuant to his employer’s reporting policy, was fatal to his claim. As the court in Patton explained, “a hostile work environment claim fails as a matter of law if the plaintiff unreasonably fail[s] to take advantage of corrective opportunities provided by the employer.”[4] This finding flows from the principle that an employer is liable for harassment “only if it knew or should have known of harassment and failed to take prompt remedial action.”[5]

The Fifth Circuit’s decision in Patton reemphasizes the importance for all employers to establish policies and procedures for reporting harassment. Here, the employer’s reporting policy, which the plaintiff failed to comply with, prevented the case from proceeding to trial, and very possibly prevented a costly judgment in the plaintiff’s favor.

Please contact the attorneys of Campbell Litigation, P.C., with any questions concerning your reporting policies.

[1] Patton v. Jacobs Engineering Grp., Inc.; Talascend, L.L.C., 2017 WL 3014429 (5th Cir. July 17, 2017).

[2] The district court in Patton also considered and granted summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claim for failure to accommodate his anxiety problems. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision regarding the plaintiff’s failure-to-accommodate claim, on the grounds that the plaintiff failed to present evidence that the employer knew that plaintiff’s disability caused his anxiety problems. Patton, 2017 WL 3014429, at *5.

[3] Patton, 2017 WL 3014429, at *6.

[4] Id.

[5] Nash v. Electrospace Sys., Inc., 9 F.3d 401, 403 (5th Cir. 1993).

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