MEMPHIS, Tenn. (Legal Newsline) – A swift response by the human resources department of Autozone has led to the dismissal of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the company by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of three female employees.
Judge Samuel H. Mays of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee agreed with Autozone’s argument that it was not liable because its HR department took the right course of action after the harassment complaint was first lodged.
“This case is a great example of why a proper investigation of a harassment complaint can prevent employer liability,” John P. Rodgers of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP told Legal Newsline.
The EEOC claimed Autozone was liable for the “lewd and obscene” behavior of a male manager at one of Autozone’s stores.
However, Mays ruled that the facts presented by Autozone supported the argument for dismissal of the EEOC’s case. Specifically, Autozone said the first employee to state in writing that she was sexually harassed by the manager was immediately asked to meet with the HR manager, who took a written statement from the complainant.
After two other employees were identified as potential victims, HR also met with and took statements from them.
“If HR had not acted as promptly and appropriately as it did, then Autozone may have been held liable for sexual harassment,” Rodgers said. “But because HR took prompt action reasonably designed to end the harassment, HR saved the day and helped prevent Autozone from being liable.”
Autozone subsequently agreed to transfer the store manager who allegedly harassed the employees. He was ultimately fired by Autozone two weeks after the transfer.
“The undisputed facts and deposition testimony demonstrates that, as soon as defendants knew or had reason to know that harassment was taking place, they began to take corrective action,” Mays said in his order dismissing the EEOC’s case.
As part of the case, Mays ruled that the EEOC had a higher burden of proof because it deemed that the store manager was not classified as a supervisor, as he could not “fire, demote, promote or transfer employees.” As a result of this ruling, the EEOC was required to prove that Autozone “knew or should have known of the offensive conduct but failed to take appropriate corrective action.”
“I don’t believe Autozone would have won summary judgment if the court that found that the alleged harasser, the store’s manager, was a supervisor,” Rodgers said. “If the court had made that finding, then Autozone would have been held to a higher standard and could have been vicariously liable for the manager’s sexual harassment (to the extent it was harassment).”
Because the court ruled that the manager was not a supervisor under standards established by the Supreme Court, Rodgers said Autozone only had to prove that it was not negligent. Rodgers said he did not know why the EEOC filed the lawsuit after corrective action had already been taken by Autozone, but he speculated that the EEOC may have believed the court would consider the store manager a supervisor.
“The HR manager’s prompt investigation and actions designed to stop any harassment that may have been occurring demonstrated that Autozone was not negligent,” Rodgers said.