Court Snuffs Out Harassment Claim – No Ifs, Ands or Butts

A convenience store clerk was fired after burning a sexually harassing customer with her cigarette.   However, her lawsuit claiming sexual harassment went down in flames.

Lauren Hales was working at Casey’s in Burlington, Iowa, when a male customer asked if she had a boyfriend and commented on her appearance. He told her where he lived, where he worked and what type of vehicle he drove. He then shared that his car had a dashboard camera “and, using a sexually suggestive tone, that he liked to film things.”

Employee Begins to Smolder

Despite feeling “annoyed and uncomfortable” with the customer, Hales did not respond to him, nor did she say anything to the two police officers who had entered the store to make a purchase.  Instead she told a co-worker that a customer had been “hitting on her” and that she was going to go outside for a cigarette to get away from him.  When the co-worker asked Hales why she was going outside if the customer was still in the store, Hales responded that she could take care of herself.

The customer followed Hales outside and blocked the entrance to the store.  After he made several more inappropriate comments, Hales asked him to “back off” and extended her cigarette toward him in an attempt to make him move away.  The customer instead stepped toward Hales, burning his left arm on the cigarette as he drew near.  He then reentered the store, and Hales followed but took no action to contact anyone at Casey’s to report the incident.

The customer returned to the store the next day and reported that Hales burned him with a cigarette.  The manager reviewed the surveillance tapes and interviewed Hales, who reported that she burned the customer to defend herself.  The manager terminated Hales, prompting her to sue for sexual harassment and retaliatory termination under Title VII.  The trial court dismissed the case, and Hales appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which encompasses Minnesota.

Claim is Reduced to Ashes

The Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal, concluding that this single incident was not sufficient to meet the legal standard of being severe or pervasive enough for a reasonable person to find that their work environment was hostile or abusive.  The customer did not touch her or overtly threaten her, and Hales felt comfortable enough to remain on the premises and not seek assistance from anyone.  As such, she failed to meet her obligation to prove a hostile work environment

In addition, even if a hostile work environment existed, Hales failed to meet her obligation of showing that the employer knew of the harassing conduct but failed to take adequate remedial action.  While this same customer had previously been reported for making sexually oriented comments to employees, the court noted approvingly that he had been warned that he would be banned from the store and the police would be called if he ever repeated such behavior.  Moreover, since Hales never reported the customer’s behavior, the company cannot be faulted for failing to take action about something of which they had no knowledge.

Bottom Line

It has been said that crazy facts make interesting law, and that was certainly true in this instance.  An employer cannot absolutely control what happens at every location at all times of the work day.  They need only make sure that their policies are in order, that they provide an appropriate response when claims are reported and that they take effective remedial action when misconduct is determined.

Casey’s passed these tests with flying colors and it allowed them to extinguish this claim very effectively.