Don’t listen to all the doubters – HR truly can save the day.

A recent federal court decision from the Western District of Tennessee illustrates the point again: prompt and appropriate investigation of a sexual harassment complaint can prevent employer liability.

In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Autozone, Inc. and Autozoners, LLC (collectively, “Autozone”), the EEOC filed suit on behalf of three aggrieved female employees, alleging that Autozone was liable for sexual harassment in violation of Title VII because a male store manager engaged in “lewd and obscene” behavior toward them. Autozone argued that, even assuming the store manager’s conduct occurred, it was not liable because it took appropriate corrective action that was reasonably calculated to end the harassment.

The court agreed, finding that the undisputed facts showed that the day after Charging Party A complained in writing to HR (accusing the store manager directly of sexual harassment for the first time), the HR manager took immediate action. The HR manager met with Charging Party A and obtained a written statement. During that meeting, she identified another employee (who, by filing her own charge of discrimination, became Charging Party B) as a potential victim of harassment. The HR manager followed up by obtaining statements from both Charging Party B and another employee (soon to become Charging Party C) regarding the store manager’s alleged harassment.

About a week later, HR informed Charging Party A that the store manager would be transferred from the store and asked if she could work with him until then. Charging Party A said she could, and they worked in the same store for a few days until the store manager was transferred (during which time the alleged harasser stayed away her). About two weeks later, Autozone fired the store manager for acts and conduct detrimental to Autozone, inappropriate comments, and loss of confidence.

The court held that Autozone’s actions shielded it from liability:

“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.”

As a result, the court granted Autozone’s Motion for Summary Judgment and dismissed the EEOC’s case.

A key precursor to the ultimate holding was the court’s determining that the store manager was not a supervisor because he did not have the ability to “fire, demote, promote, or transfer employees.” The court reasoned he only had the “ability to direct a co-worker’s labor,” and could not effect a significant change in a co-worker’s employment status. As a result, the court held that he was not a supervisor under the Supreme Court’s Vance v. Ball State standard. Consequently, the EEOC had to meet a higher standard or proof: that the Defendants “knew or should have known of the offensive conduct but failed to take appropriate corrective action.” The EEOC could not meet this burden. If the store manager had been a supervisor, then the Defendants may have been vicariously liable for his conduct.

This case highlights that an appropriate and prompt investigation of a harassment complaint can prevent employer liability for the harassing conduct, regardless of how bad the harassing conduct may be. Human resources should promptly and appropriately investigate all harassment complaints and take action reasonably calculated to stop the harassment. If HR does that, HR may just save the day.