New Jersey Appeal Court Reaffirms Legal Importance of Workplace Anti-Harassment Measures

By: Ralph R. Smith, 3rd, Esq.

In Dunkley v. S. Caraluzzo Petroleum Company, 2014 NJ Super. LEXIS 130 (App. Div. 2014), the New Jersey Superior Court-Appellate Division recently reiterated the importance of employer sponsored anti-harassment policies and training in defending against employee allegations of wrongful harassment under the state’s antidiscrimination laws.

The plaintiff in Dunkley was an African American who formerly worked as a company truck driver.  During his initial days of employment, his trainer made repeated race-based comments around the employee, including references to the Klu Klux Klan and other racially offensive comments that were disconcerting enough that the employee took a day off from work.  When the company inquired about the reason for the employee’s absence, the employee advised of the racially based remarks of his trainer. Upon the employee’s return to work, he was reassigned to a new trainer.

After returning, the employee claimed that other employees shunned him because his trainer had been changed based upon his reports about his racial harassment.  The plaintiff also maintained that he was in constant fear of possible retaliation from the former trainer who had mentioned previously that he had ties to a violent local motorcycle gang.  After a work place oil spill occurred that plaintiff attributed to his being uncomfortable and worried about possible reprisals against him at work, he resigned his employment, and thereafter sued claiming that he was exposed to a racially hostile work environment and had been constructively discharged from employment.

The appellate court upheld the dismissal of plaintiff’s claims, finding that the employer could not be held vicariously liable for the harassing actions of the trainer because it had taken affirmative steps to prevent harassment claims in its workplace.  Along with having a circulated policy prohibiting all forms of harassment in the workplace, the defendant also had a detailed complaint procedure for bringing allegations of harassment to the company’s attention.  It likewise had mandatory anti-harassment training sessions for all company employees.  In light of the company’s extensive adopted measures to prevent workplace harassment, and the prompt and corrective actions undertaken after plaintiff raised concerns about the actions of his first trainer to management’s attention, the company effectively shielded itself from any potential liability under state law for plaintiff’s workplace harassment claim.

As this case illustrates, one of the most fundamental ways to guard against liability for workplace harassment claims is to have detailed anti-harassment procedures that warn of the dangers of harassment and implement procedures to enable a company to address immediately any claims of workplace harassment.   Companies that regularly train employees on such policies on a recurring basis, and utilize such policies when necessary to address allegations of harassment, place themselves in the best position to defend themselves against harassment claims.  Therefore, if your agency or company has not done so recently, update your anti-harassment policies and conduct company/agency training as soon as possible to refresh your staff about the evils of harassment and the steps available to employees to address such concerns in your workplace.