- An employer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it failed to stop harassment of an employee with with ADD/ADHD and Tourette Syndrome, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has alleged in a lawsuit (EEOC v. Herbruck Poultry Ranch, Inc., No. 19-cv-00165 (W.D. Mich. March 1, 2019)).
- Employees and a supervisor at Herbruck Poultry Ranch Inc. harassed Melinda Crooke, a line worker, because of her impairments, according to the suit. Her disabilities sometimes caused her to be "overly talkative" and to experience facial tics and uncontrolled arm movements; in response, her supervisor and some of her co-workers devised nicknames and mocked her movements, EEOC alleged.
- According to the lawsuit, Crooke complained to her supervisor and an HR rep "to no avail." In fact, the suit alleged, the supervisor retaliated by speeding up the conveyor line and timing Crooke's bathroom breaks. She eventually quit and EEOC sued on her behalf, seeking back pay as well as compensatory and punitive damages.
"An employer cannot condone a work environment where an employee with an impairment is ridiculed because of it," Dale Price, an EEOC trial attorney, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. "It must step in to stop such behavior. The EEOC will vigorously pursue violations of the ADA and seek injunctive relief when employers fail to act promptly and appropriately."
An employer can be held liable when co-workers and supervisors engage in unlawful harassment, unless the employer can show that it took immediate and appropriate corrective action, according to EEOC. Training for staff and a robust reporting mechanism can help, but HR also must be prepared to take all complaints seriously, experts say.
Workplace policies should forbid harassment based on sex, race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability and protected activity, according to EEOC's Enforcement Guidance on Vicarious Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment by Supervisors. And an employer's complaint procedure should be designed to encourage victims to come forward, preferably before matters become severe, the agency said; the process should be clearly explained and employers should make sure that there are no unreasonable obstacles to employee participation in the complaint process.
Employers also should designate someone outside the employee's chain of command, such as HR, to receive complaints, EEOC said; the reporting process won't be effective if employees are required to first complain to their supervisors because, in some situations, the supervisor is the accused harasser.
Training should explain the types of conduct that violate the employer's anti-harassment policy and that can lead to lawsuits; the seriousness of the policy; the responsibilities of supervisors and managers when they learn of alleged harassment and that retaliation is strictly forbidden, the agency recommended. Employers also can go one step further and include compliance responsibilities in managers' formal evaluations, EEOC suggested.