Supervisor Claims Harassment by Subordinates

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals will allow a black, female supervisor’s claim that she was harassed by male subordinates based on her sex, race, and national origin to proceed. Stewart v. Rise, Inc. (8th Cir. 2015).

Bernadine Stewart alleged that her male, Somali-born subordinates commented that black women “had no value” and that American women were disrespectful because “they were not beaten enough.” She also alleged that they physically threatened and intimidated female coworkers. Stewart said that she complained orally about the conduct to both her supervisor and the company’s HR director.

Stewart’s claim was dismissed in the lower court, but the Eighth Circuit revived it, finding that Stewart had offered sufficient evidence in the form of her own testimony and that of others to survive summary judgment. The court held that “[t]he comments were a consistent pattern of verbal abuse based on sex, race, or national origin often tied to overt acts of intimidation, violence or insubordination.”

In the lower court, Stewart’s employer successfully argued that Stewart’s claim should be dismissed because she failed to file a written complaint as required by Rise’s conflict resolution procedure. The Eighth Circuit, however, said that the law does not require a complaint to be in any particular form.

Employers should take two things from this case. One, although harassment claims most often involve top-down or peer-level misconduct, bottom-up misconduct by subordinates toward supervisors is also actionable. Two, investigate all complaints, whether written or oral.