Today’s entry in our continuing series on workplace harassment comes from the case of Slone v. Toyota Motor Mfg., 2005 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 560. This case deals with a woman who reported the harassment she was experiencing on multiple occasions to her supervisor, who in turn did nothing to stop the harassment from recurring. The facts in the following story are recounted directly from those found in the Court’s opinion.
Paula Slone began working as a temporary worker for Toyota in November 1999. When she began working, one of her co-workers, Dwayne Covey, was off work on leave. Covey returned to Toyota in December, and upon meeting Paula, proceeded to ask her if she would ever consider dating a married man. Paula turned Covey’s advances down and reported the conversation to her team leader, asking “what’s up with Dwayne? I didn’t think Toyota would allow something like that.”
A number of incidents occurred after that initial conversation, with each incident growing progressively more offensive and inappropriate. One day, while Paula was bending over to grab a pair of gloves from the floor, Covey sidled up behind her and began acting as if he was spanking her, proclaiming, “I’m going to spank that ass,” while a number of their co-workers watched. Paula reported the incident to her supervisor, Dave Howard, requesting that he bring a stop to Covey’s behavior.
Following her report, Paula was approached again by Covey, who poked her buttocks with a wooden handle. Paula brought up this incident a few days later during a daily team meeting at which Howard was present. Howard did nothing in response, but simply lowered his head when the topic was being discussed.
About a week later, Covey attempted to pull Paula’s shirt up to expose her breasts. Paula slapped Covey and told him to leave her alone. Covey walked away, but only a few minutes later returned, asking Paula if she “had any Covey in her?” Paula, believing that Covey was asking about her lineage, replied that she did not. Covey responded, “Do you want some,” crudely alluding to sexual intercourse between the two. A number of co-workers standing near Paula overheard the exchange and began laughing. Paula walked to the break room for a team meeting, where the laughter continued, prompting Paula to tell her co-workers to stop laughing about Covey’s infantile joke, and to leave her alone. Dave Howard, sitting at his desk in the break room, overheard the entire incident, and again did nothing.
Later, in February 2000, Paula fetched a couple of supervisors to assist her with a mechanical problem on the production line. While the supervisors were working on the line, Covey approached Paula and began pulling at her shirt, asking if she’d kiss him. Paula walked over to the supervisors and informed them of Covey’s actions. One of the supervisors responded by simply stating that Covey was “off the clock,” and then returned to fixing the machine.
That same day, when Paula was leaving work, Covey ambushed her as she was about to get into her car. Covey prevented Paula from opening her car door, and stated that he wasn’t going to let her leave until she kissed him. He then asked if she would meet him at another location so they could have sex. When Paula started running back towards the building for help, Covey finally retreated, telling her that he would leave her alone.
On the next business day, Paula reported the incident to Howard, but Howard again refused to acknowledge the problem, or do anything to help Paula. Over the next few weeks, Covey would occasionally walk by Paula and slap her buttocks. Paula again went to Howard for help, but his response was the same as it had been during her prior complaints. Finally, understanding that Howard was not going to put an end to the harassment, Paula asked a co-worker to report Covey’s behavior to another supervisor, which, after months of abuse, resulted in an investigation by Toyota, and ended with Covey being terminated.
After filing suit against Toyota, the trial court handling the action initially dismissed Paula’s claims for sexually hostile work environment on summary judgment. The Kentucky Court of Appeals reversed that decision, and allowed Paula’s suit to proceed to trial. The issue in this case wasn’t whether Paula had been harassed by Covey, which she obviously had been, but rather revolved around the question of whether Toyota had taken the appropriate action once it became aware of Covey’s behavior. While Toyota eventually got around to investigating Paula’s complaints, and ultimately fired Covey, these were actions that arguably should have been taken when Paula first reported harassment to her supervisor, Dave Howard. Because of this issue, the Court of Appeals felt that the case should be decided by a jury, rather than dismissed by the trial court.
Supervisors are agents of the companies for which they work. When a supervisor becomes aware of unlawful harassment occurring towards an employee, it is as if the company itself has become aware of the harassment. Therefore, supervisors have a duty to take corrective action against harassment in the workplace, and if they fail to, their company could be liable for the harm that results.
If you feel as if you are being sexually harassed at work, you should report that harassment to the appropriate person, whether it be your supervisor or a designated Human Resources employee. If that report fails to result in any action that puts an end to the harassment, like in Paula’s case, you likely have legal remedies available to you. In that case, it is extremely important to seek legal counsel in order to learn what those remedies are.