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Employer’s Prompt Remedial Action Bars Racial-Harassment Claim

By Alicia Sienne Voltmer  3/6/2014

Reversing a race-based hostile-work-environment jury verdict, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that an employer's prompt remedial actions were sufficient to defeat the claim because they effectively halted the offending conduct.  

Nadiya Williams-Boldware, a black assistant district attorney for Denton County, Texas, complained about racially inappropriate language directed at her by her white male co-worker. Within 24 hours of her complaint, the man issued a written apology and Williams-Boldware’s immediate supervisor reported the incident to human resources, which conducted an investigation. The employer honored the assistant D.A.’s request to confront her co-worker and, soon after, reprimanded him and required him to take diversity training. It also transferred Williams-Boldware to a different division to ensure she had no contact with him. The allegedly harassing conduct ceased.

Williams-Boldware’s claim of racial harassment in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act proceeded to trial, and the court denied the employer's motion for judgment as a matter of law. The jury awarded the plaintiff more than $400,000 in damages for past and future mental pain, humiliation, embarrassment, depression, anger, emotional distress, and damage to reputation, as well as damages for past physical pain and suffering, which the court ultimately reduced. The employer appealed, contending the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to prove that Williams-Boldware was subjected to a hostile work environment, and even if she was, its prompt remedial action defeated her claim.

Reversing the trial court's denial of judgment as a matter of law, the 5th Circuit declined to decide whether the conduct in question created a hostile work environment and instead found that the following constituted prompt remedial actions:

     The supervisor's prompt report of Williams-Boldware’s complaint to human resources.

     The employer's meeting with Williams-Boldware to discuss her complaint.

     The employer's acquiescence to her request to personally confront her colleague.

     The employer's request for Williams-Boldware’s input on an appropriate response.

     The employer's verbal reprimand of the offender.

     The employer's requirement that the co-worker attend diversity training.

     The employer’s transfer of Williams-Boldware so she could avoid any contact with her colleague.

The employer successfully defeated the racial-harassment claim because it demonstrated by its actions that it took the plaintiff’s complaints seriously and its remedial efforts effectively halted the offensive conduct. 

Williams-Boldware v. Denton Cnty, 5th Cir., No. 13-40044 (Jan. 31, 2014).

Professional Pointer: The court reiterated that an employer is not required to impose the severest of penalties upon an offending worker to satisfy the prompt-remedial-action standard. Effective remedial action is timely, calculated to end the offensive behavior and successful in doing so.

Alicia Sienne Voltmer is a shareholder in the Dallas office of Ogletree Deakins, an international labor and employment law firm representing management. 

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