Beware: Failing to Report Sexual Harassment Can Kill Your Case

A recent case out of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, McKinnish v. Brennan No. 14-2092 (4th Cir. Nov. 6, 2015), serves as a stark reminder of the important of utilizing employer's internal sexual harassment reporting procedures if any are available. 

In McKinnish, the employee received numerous sexually explicit text messages, photos, and videos from her supervisor over a ten-month period. She considered them to be harassing. But she never reported them to her employer as alleged harassment. McKinnish's husband eventually reported the messages to the employer after he discovered them. And the employer did the right thing and immediately terminated the supervisor.

McKinnish later sued and alleged hostile-environment sexual harassment under Title VII. The employer (the U.S. Postal Service) argued that McKinnish's claims should be dismissed because they were subject to what employment lawyers call the Faragher-Ellerth defense. The employer agreed. 

What is the Faragher-Ellerth defense?

In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court used two cases called Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998), and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998) to create a defense for employers against sexual harassment claims. It later expanded this defense in a case called Vance v. Ball State

The Faragher-Ellerth affirmative defense applies when: (i) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior; and (ii) the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise.

In other words, if the employer has an internal policy providing a process for reporting, investigating and correcting incidents of sexual harassment, and employee must make use of that policy. If she fails to do so an it is determined by the court that her refusal to utilize the internal process was unreasonable, she will lose her claim against the company. 

Often, employees don’t want to report sexual harassment internally because it is uncomfortable to talk with someone in HR about the problem, because the employee doesn’t believe HR really has her best interests at heart, or she fears retaliation.  In fact, that is exactly what Ms. McKinnish argued in her case. Sadly, the court rejected this argument, holding that an employee’s “subjective fears of confrontation, unpleasantness or retaliation” do not alleviate the employee’s duty to alert his or her employer to an allegedly hostile environment.

Bottom Line: Report Sexual Harassment

This is an area where the Supreme Court has been pretty consistent. The courts want employers and employees to try to work out employment-related problems before they resort to going to court. The law requires you to give the company a chance to do the right thing before you sue them. 

  • If you are being sexually harassed, report it.
  • Report it in writing (email is fine). 
  • Keep a copy (print the email).

Is it possible that in response to your report the company won’t take any action or might even retaliate against you? Yep. But if that happens then a lawyer will be in a much better position to help you and the court will be much more likely rule in your favor.