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Frivolous harassment claims: Can you discipline accusers?

February 13, 2012 by James Russo
Posted in: Employment law, In this week's e-newsletter, Latest News and Views, Legal and compliance, Management

Everyone knows the rules prohibiting retaliation against employees who file a complaint. But what about unfounded complaints?

Let’s say you’re about to discipline an employee who then files a frivolous claim of sexual harassment to try to avoid the discipline. Are your hands tied? A recent court decision answers the question.

First, the details of the case, Joaquin v. City of Los Angeles, filed in a California appellate court:

  • A male employee leaves work early without getting the OK from his supervisor.
  • The employee’s supervisor verifies the charge of leaving early and seeks to discipline the employee for the infraction.
  • The employee charges his supervisor, another male, with sexual harassment, by reporting incidents in which the supervisor made supposedly suggestive comments to the employee, such as “You look nice” and “We should go out sometime.”
  • An investigation of the harassment charge shows there was no coercion or advances by the supervisor. The charge of harassment is dismissed.
  • The employer fires the employee for false accusation of sexual harassment for the purpose of avoiding discipline.
  • The employee sues, arguing the termination amounts to retaliation for filing a sexual harassment complaint. (Note: A claim of retaliation can be made even if the original complaint of harassment is proved false.)

The Court found in favor of the employer. Here’s an excerpt from the court’s decision:

“To [allow blatantly false complaints without penalty] would leave employers with no ability to fire employees for defaming other employees or the employer through their complaint when the allegations are without any basis in fact… The antidiscrimination laws were not designed to arm employees with a tactical coercive weapon under which employees can make baseless claims simply to advance their own retaliatory motives and strategies.”

That’s good news for employers, of course. Employees can’t just play the harassment card when they’re in trouble. To make sure you’re covered, however:

  • Establish a false-claims policy. Have your written policies flatly prohibit making false claims. Don’t go heavy-handed on this; underscore that employees’ claims will be investigated in good faith and that there are similar prohibitions on retaliation.
  • Investigate and document. If you end up firing or otherwise disciplining an employee for a false accusation, you’ll want to be sure the investigation was thorough and documented fully.
  • Use disinterested parties to investigate. Make sure anyone involved with the investigation (including yourself) has as little connection as possible with the accused or the accuser.

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