On June 25, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit issued its opinion in Wilcox v. Corrections Corporation of America in favor of the employer in a Title VII sexual harassment claim. The 11th Circuit affirmed the district court’s granting of the employer’s Rule 50 Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law (“Rule 50 Motion”) after a jury returned a verdict for the employee, Felicia A. Wilcox, of $4,000 in actual damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the employer, Corrections Corporation of America, that the employer could not be held liable because it took prompt remedial action after Ms. Wilcox complained about the harassment.

Helen H. Albee, one of Ms. Wilcox’s attorneys, was surprised that the 11th Circuit followed what the district court did and were “unconcerned with the amount of factual analysis the district court did on the Rule 50 motion.” Ms. Albee noted that after the jury’s verdict, the district court did “a lot of re-weighing the evidence the jury did already.” Let’s take a look at the facts and what happened in this case.

What Happened and When?

Ms. Wilcox alleged that a coworker, Larry Jackson, slapped her buttocks twice, squeezed her thigh, and made sexually explicit remarks on different occasions. When Ms. Wilcox filed a complaint with her employer, the employer took the following steps:

  • The employer ordered Jackson not to be around Ms. Wilcox immediately, but nonetheless he rolled his eyes at her repeatedly and punched a metal machine in front of her to intimidate her;
  • After Ms. Wilcox made a second complaint to the employer about prior sexual harassment incidents and her fear that he would touch her again, the employer’s investigator interviewed Ms. Wilcox 6 weeks after her first complaint;
  • The employer’s investigation included interviews with 16 other employees that resulted in sexual harassment complaints against Jackson by other employees;
  • 8 weeks after Ms. Wilcox’s complaint, the employer’s investigator found that Jackson sexually harassed Ms. Wilcox and other employees; and
  • The employer terminated Jackson five days after the investigation report.

Knowledge + No Prompt Remedial Action = Employer’s Direct Liability

An employer can be held liable for a hostile work environment claim through either vicarious or direct liability. If the harasser is not the victim’s supervisor, an “employer will be held directly liable only if it knew or should have known of the harassing conduct but failed to take prompt remedial action.” Miller v. Kenworth of Dothan, Inc., 277 F.3d 1269, 1278 (11th Cir. 2002). Wilcox argued that her employer should have known about Jackson’s additional harassment after she complained about him because he would inappropriately hug female employees and make intimidating looks and gestures toward Ms. Wilcox after her first complaint. The 11th Circuit didn’t think the harassment was sufficiently pervasive to impute knowledge to the employer because (1) Ms. Wilcox didn’t report the hugging or intimidating conduct; (2) there wasn’t any evidence that the hugging was widespread or considered offensive; and (3) the employer’s anti-discrimination policy was well-known and vigorously enforced.

As for the employer’s “prompt remedial action,” the 11th Circuit held the employer’s action was effective “and a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find otherwise.” Wilcox v. Corr. Corp. of Am., No. 17-11919, 2018 WL 3099892 (11th Cir. June 25, 2018). The only prompt action that seemed to occur here was ordering Jackson to stay away from Ms. Wilcox. Nine weeks is a long time to be working alongside a harasser who is being physically intimidating without saying a word. During oral argument, the employer’s attorney argued that Jackson’s termination within 5 days of the report concluding sexual harassment occurred and investigation into numerous other allegations showed that the ends justified the means because “the investigation was reasonable under the circumstances.” The 11th Circuit reasoned that a jury could not find that the employer failed to act promptly because “there were a lot of moving parts in the company’s investigation, and each of those workings took time” and “culminated in Jackson’s termination.” Wilcox, No. 17-11919, 2018 WL 3099892 (11th Cir. June 25, 2018).

Many employees want to know what is going on with the company’s investigation after lodging a sexual harassment complaint. Working alongside a harasser while an investigation is ongoing can be excruciating, but many employers don’t keep the victim apprised of the investigation. While taking six weeks to interview a victim scarcely seems “prompt,” a court may conclude otherwise if the investigation is complicated and results in the harasser’s termination. If you are experiencing sexual harassment at work, an attorney can help you understand your rights and guide you through the pre-litigation phase.