In Wilson v. Moulison North Corporation, an employee sought to hold his employer liable for a racially hostile work environment created by coworkers. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed an award of summary judgment for the employer on two grounds: the employer took prompt and appropriate remedial action upon first report of the harassment, and the employee failed to properly notify his employer of further harassment.
Moulison North Corporation hired Arthur Wilson, who is African-American, in May 2006. He worked alongside three Caucasian employees, William Stineford, Dale Small, and Ryan Polley. Though Polley served as the lead worker of the group, he did not have authority to supervise the group. Moulison North had an anti-harassment policy that directed employees to report harassment specifically to either their “supervisor or to Ken Moulison,” the owner.
Almost immediately after being hired, Wilson encountered several racial epithets from Stineford and Small. Polley, aware of these remarks, told Stineford and Small that their comments were inappropriate and temporarily separated them from Wilson. However, the harassment continued, and Wilson informed Moulison of the harassment. The next day, Moulison warned Stineford and Small that their misconduct was unacceptable and if continued would result in termination. However, the use of racial epithets persisted. Wilson complained to Polley about the continued harassment, but he did not inform his direct supervisor or Moulison.
In September 2006, Wilson asserted hostile work environment claims in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine against Moulison North. The District Court granted the Company’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that Wilson had failed to make out a trialworthy issue as to employer liability. In affirming the District Court, the First Circuit held that since the harassers were coworkers rather than supervisors, Wilson must demonstrate “that the employer knew or should have known about the harassment yet failed to take prompt and appropriate remedial action.” The Court found that when notified of the initial harassment, Moulison took appropriate corrective action by verbally reprimanding the harassers and making it clear that any further misconduct would result in termination of their employment.
As for the subsequent harassment, the First Circuit found that Wilson had only reported it to his coworker Polley, rather than his supervisor or Moulison, as required by the policy. Although Wilson held a subjective belief that Polley’s lead role equated to a supervisor, there was insufficient evidence of any apparent authority for Polley to accept notice of harassment on behalf of the employer. Wilson also admitted in his testimony that Moulison specifically told Wilson to report any future harassment directly to him. Wilson’s failure to put the Company on notice of the renewed harassment was fatal to his claim of employer liability.
This decision emphasizes the importance of having an anti-harassment policy that clearly identifies the proper management contacts for employee complaints of harassment or discrimination. It also underscores the importance of adequately addressing employee complaints of coworker harassment and taking prompt and appropriate corrective action.