HR Management & Compliance

5th Circuit Rejects Discrimination, Hostile Work Environment Claims

A former employee failed to establish she was subjected to a hostile work environment and discriminated and retaliated against by her former employer, the U. S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit (which covers Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi employers) recently ruled, affirming the district court’s decision. The appellate court’s opinion offers guidance on how you should respond to such allegations to avoid liability.

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Angie Scott-Benson worked as a health safety and environment (HSE) inspector for KBR, Inc., on a construction project in Waggaman, Louisiana, from 2013 to 2016. At some point during the stint, some coworkers reported her to the company’s HR ethics hotline, alleging she was in a romantic relationship with her supervisor and receiving favorable treatment at work as a result.

KBR commenced an investigation and ultimately determined there wasn’t enough evidence to substantiate the relationship, but it wrote up Scott-Benson and her supervisor and advised both to change their behavior in the workplace going forward.

After Scott-Benson was disciplined for the alleged workplace conduct, she filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claiming:

  • KBR and the coworkers discriminated against her based on sex by accusing her of being romantically involved with the supervisor; and
  • The company retaliated against her for telling the corporate office about a possible Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) violation related to some of her medical records.

In late 2016, after a construction project ended, KBR laid off Scott-Benson from her position as an HSE inspector. A different manager (not the  supervisor with whom she alllegedly had the relationship) tried to create create a new HSE inspector position for her at another company project in La Porte, Texas. She applied for the position.

Ultimately, management decided KBR didn’t need another HSE inspector on the La Porte project and that Scott-Benson wasn’t qualified to fill such a job in any event. She countered that KBR hired a man for the position instead of her based on gender. The company replied the male employee was hired for a separate, management-level position for which she hadn’t applied.

After KBR declined to hire Scott-Benson for the La Porte project, she filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging she was discriminated against based on sex and that the company failed to hire her in retaliation for filing the earlier EEOC charge.

Court Rejects Lawsuit Because of Insufficient Evidence

Scott-Benson filed her gender discrimination lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The statute also holds employers liable under certain circumstances when an employee can show a hostile work environment, retaliation for reporting possible violations of the Act, or a wrongful termination or refusal to hire based on gender, race, or any other protected characteristic.

Hostile work environment. Before an employee can pursue a Title VII lawsuit, she must file a related charge with the EEOC. Although Scott-Benson filed multiple charges with the agency, none of them referenced a hostile work environment. Therefore, the court dismissed the claim.

Sex discrimination. To prove the failure-to-hire claim, Scott-Benson had to demonstrate she applied and was qualified for the job and that the company hired someone of another gender instead. If she could make that showing, KBR had to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for why she wasn’t hired. In fact, the company established she wasn’t qualified because of a lack of relevant experience and that the position she sought was discontinued before her application.

Employer retaliation. The court likewise found no evidence KBR had retaliated against Scott-Benson for filing the EEOC charge or for any other reason. The company successfully showed (1) the Waggaman project had ended, whicch providing a legitimate reason for laying her off, and (2) she wasn’t qualified for any positions that may have opened up in La Porte.

Takeaways for Employers

KBR was able to defend itself against Scott-Benson’s lawsuit in part because of adequate documentation of its hiring and termination practices and policies in place to prevent discrimination and retaliation. Be sure you have a method for employees to report perceived violations of company policy as well as actions that may constitute discrimination or create a hostile work environment. Complaints must be taken seriously and investigated promptly in compliance with the law.

Document the reasons behind your employment decisions, particularly adverse actions such as discipline, demotion, or termination. Proper documentation on the front end may help you to avoid costly and extensive litigation if an employee or applicant accuses the company of violating Title VII.

Finally, always consult with an experienced employment attorney when it becomes clear an employee or applicant may be pursuing charges through the EEOC or preparing to file a lawsuit. It’s never too early to retain legal counsel to help your company address and remedy the issues and develop policies to prevent the situations from happening in the first place.

Jacob J. Pritt is an Associate in Jones Walker’s labor and employment practice group in New Orleans. He can be reached at jpritt@joneswalker.com.