Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment Claim Dismissal Was Proper in Light of Defendant’s “Prompt,” “Effective” Response: 3rd Circuit

In Stein v. Attorney General United States of America, 2023 WL 3993014 (3d Cir. June 14, 2023) (not precedential), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s claim of hostile work environment sexual harassment asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In this case, the plaintiff (Stein) and the alleged harasser (Eisenmann), both correctional officers, were once involved in a romantic relationship with one another. The lower court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, and this court affirms.

The court focused its analysis on the question of whether the alleged harassment may be imputed to the entity defendant. This question turns on whether the alleged harasser is a “supervisor” or a non-supervisory co-worker. Here, plaintiff did not contend that the alleged harasser – a fellow correctional officer – exercised supervisory authority over her.

From the decision:

Stein’s case rests on a theory of co-worker liability. An employer can be held liable for harassment by one of the victim’s non-supervisory coworkers only in two scenarios: (i) the employer failed to provide a reasonable avenue for complaint, or (ii) the employer knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate remedial action. Here, Stein does not argue that the BOP provided an inadequate process for making complaints about sexual harassment at USP Canaan. Rather, she seeks to establish employer liability for coworker harassment through the second approach.

To succeed on such a theory, Stein must demonstrate that the BOP “was negligent in failing to discover the co-worker harassment or in responding to a report of such harassment. But unless the misconduct should have been discovered earlier, liability under this approach does not attach when an employer, upon learning of harassment by the victim’s coworker, takes prompt action that is reasonably calculated to prevent further harassment. Thus, as a matter of law, a response by the employer that is effective, i.e., one that in fact prevents further harassment, is adequate and insulates the employer from liability for a hostile-work-environment claim.

In this case, the BOP took prompt remedial action in response to Stein’s report of the mailroom incident.4 The day of the incident, Stein’s lieutenants had her draft a detailed memorandum regarding Eisenmann’s harassment, and they immediately reported the incident up the chain-of-command to the prison’s warden. Upon receiving that report, the warden convened a threat-assessment committee the same day. That committee then interviewed both parties and developed a personal protection plan to keep Stein safe at work. Under that plan, the BOP reassigned Eisenmann, changed his hours, issued him a cease-and-desist order, and implemented additional controls to prevent him and Stein from being alone together at work.

In addition to its promptness, the BOP’s response was effective. Stein and Eisenmann did not have any interactions at work for over two years. And the interactions they had after that time were sporadic and did not rise to the level of harassment: those episodes consisted of a caustic quip, unfriendly body language, and an email that, at least on its face, was work-related.

[Cleaned up.]

The court concluded that since defendant’s “prompt response to Stein’s report of the mailroom incident prevented further sexual harassment, it was adequate as a matter of law,” rendering it unnecessary to address the defendant’s other argument, namely, its contention that the work environment was not “hostile.”

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