The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that being subjected to a sexual harassment investigation does not create a hostile work environment. Mandujano v. City of Pharr, Texas (5th Cir. 2019).
Mr. Mandujano was a deputy fire chief when he was accused of sexual harassment. The City opened two separate investigations into his conduct, and he resigned after allegedly being told by the fire chief that a sexual harassment finding would be made against him even though there was no evidence supporting such a finding. Mandujano claimed that he was constructively discharged on the basis of his sex due to the sexual harassment investigations. Mandujano’s complaint did not plausibly allege that the City’s investigations created a hostile work environment, with working conditions “so intolerable that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign,” the Fifth Circuit concluded. Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit upheld a district court’s dismissal of Mandujano’s complaint.
This decision underscores that when allegations of workplace harassment are brought to Human Resources, or supervisors, a prompt and thorough investigation is a legal necessity. These investigations mean that allegations are taken seriously, with the facts examined in a fair and neutral manner. Harassment at work remains common. A recent survey conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) concluded that more than 20 percent of the 15,000 surveyed employees, guest researchers, trainees, and contractors had experienced sexual harassment over a 12 month period, but almost half failed to report it. Another common problem is retaliation against those who raise complaints or engage in other protected activity. Retaliation complaints often accompany allegations of harassment or bias, and retaliation can occur even when the underlying harassment or bias claims are unfounded.
While hostility against the target of a complaint is less common, it can still happen—if, for example, the confidentiality of the investigation is breached and supervisors or others start treating the accused employee poorly due to the allegations. Any concerns about retaliation should not dissuade an employer from conducting a fair and impartial investigation and addressing these concerns in a prompt manner. Having an external, neutral, third-party investigator like Employers Council can also protect against these future claims. For more information, please contact our Investigations department at 800.884.1328 or Investigations@EmployersCouncil.org.