Responding Appropriately To Harassment Complaint Insulates Employer From Liability

In her first two weeks as a patrol officer for the City of Fort Pierce, Florida, Nicole Patsalides reported that she was sexually harassed by a co-worker. During that time, by her account, a male patrol officer with whom she worked touched her repeatedly in ways that she considered to be inappropriate, and in general showed an undue interest in her. Over the relevant two-week period, the male officer touched her arm, shoulder, or hands on approximately ten different occasions, and on one occasion rubbed his hand on her thigh from up by her service belt all the way down to her knee.

The male officer would also arrive as backup on police calls to which Patsalides was dispatched without being called for, and tried to maximize the amount of time that he spent with her. The male officer never made any remarks of a sexual or flirtatious nature to her.

After two weeks of this sort of behavior, Patsalides reported the male officer to a superior in the police department. Within a day the Department launched an investigation. Within three days the male officer was placed on paid administrative leave. Thereafter, his employment with the City was terminated. The termination was based in part on the City’s determination that his conduct toward Patsalides violated its sexual harassment policy, and in part on the fact that he had a past record of sexual misconduct of which the City was aware and for which he had been reprimanded.

Patsalides sued the City, claiming it was responsible for the male officer’s sexual harassment. The federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that there “was no basis on which to find the City liable for the officer’s actions. After Patsalides reported the male officer’s offensive conduct, the City promptly investigated the matter. Further, within three days it took quick and decisive action to ensure that Patsalides would no longer be subjected to the officer’s unwelcome advances by placing the officer on administrative leave. Finally, after concluding its investigation, the City terminated the offending officer, thereby guaranteeing that no further incidents would occur. In many ways, the City’s actions following the complaint were a model of proper employer responsiveness under Title VII.

“Also, the City’s past responses to prior allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against the male officer were prompt and adequate. Between 1997 and 2013, the male officer was found to have engaged in some form of sexual misconduct on four occasions. As for each incident, the City variously responded by issuing written warnings to the officer, counseling him on proper conduct, or suspending him without pay on two different occasions, once for three days and once for five. Indeed, after the most recent incident preceding the events giving rise to this case, the officer was warned that another infraction would result in his termination. And the City made good on this warning after investigating the charges brought by Patsalides.

“This pattern of disciplinary action, whereby each new infraction was met with prompt and effective remedial measures and the imposition of increasingly severe punishment that ultimately culminated in the officer’s termination, is entirely consistent with the City’s obligations under Title VII. In no way can the City be said to have been negligent in controlling working conditions. Therefore, there is no basis to hold the City liable for the male officer’s actions toward Patsalides.”

Patsalides v. City of Ft. Pierce, 724 Fed. Appx. 749 (11th Cir. 2018).

from Public Safety Labor News