The case of Anicich v. Home Depot USA, Inc., et al., Case No. 16-1693 (7th Cir. 2017), is a brutal reminder of an employer’s duty to its employees and what can happen when a supervisor’s conduct is not addressed appropriately. According to the allegations set forth in the Complaint, Brian Cooper, a regional manager for the defendants, had a history of harassing young female subordinates. One young female associate who had been subjected to various sexual comments by Cooper and forced to ride in a vehicle with him while he engaged in such inappropriate conduct complained about his conduct to a group leader. The group leader responded that she had received complaints about Cooper from other employees and she herself even felt uncomfortable around him. The associate resigned her position due to Cooper’s conduct.
Cooper then engaged in even more egregious behavior toward another young female subordinate, including calling her his girlfriend, yelling and swearing at her, calling her vulgar names in front of customers, and throwing things. In addition, according to the complaint, Cooper texted and called her frequently after work hours, pressured her to spend time with him, forced her to take a business trip with him and share a hotel room, and routinely exhibited an aggressive and angry tone towards her. The associate complained repeatedly to management about Cooper’s behavior, according to the complaint. Although he was sent home on one occasion after calling the associate a whore and a slut in front of a customer, and later was required to take an anger-management class, his conduct continued. Despite management’s knowledge of the behavior, Cooper continued to be her supervisor.
Toward the end of these events, Cooper told the associate she had to accompany him to his sister’s wedding in another state or else she would be fired or have her work hours reduced. She finally consented and went to the wedding, shared a hotel room with him, and then died as a result of Cooper strangling her. Cooper now is serving two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.
The associate’s mother sued the defendants in the name of the associate and her unborn child, alleging the defendants were negligent and such negligence resulted in her daughter’s death. The district court dismissed the case on grounds the defendants did not owe a duty of care to the associate. The mother then appealed.
The Seventh Circuit reversed. Generally, pursuant to Illinois tort law. one person does not have a duty to prevent the criminal acts of another. A significant exception to this general rule is that employers have a duty to act reasonably in hiring, supervising, and retaining their employees. To state a claim, an individual must show the employer knew or should have known an employee had a particular unfitness for his/her position so as to create a danger of harm to third persons, that such unfitness was known or should have been known at the time of hiring, retention, or failure to supervise, and the unfitness proximately caused the plaintiff’s injury. The Court held the defendants had a duty to prevent sex harassment in the workplace by a supervisor and their failure to discipline Cooper if the alleged conduct proved to be true constituted a failure of their duty in this regard.
The Court also held the defendants could be liable because Cooper used his supervisory authority over the associate to threaten her with termination or a reduction in hours if she refused his advances. In other words, the Court concluded the defendants could be held vicariously liable for the intentional tort committed by one of its supervisors even though such conduct may have been outside the scope of his employment. Finally, the Court held it was reasonably foreseeable that Cooper would engage in conduct that would cause some level of harm to the associate. The Court deemed it irrelevant that Cooper had not physically harmed anyone in the past because the defendants had been made aware of other incidents, such as Cooper throwing things, threatening people, and screaming obscenities.
While the facts of this particular case are exceedingly brutal and tragic, employers are reminded they need to be vigilant in enforcing their existing harassment policies to prevent or lessen the chances of a similar result from occurring in their workplace. Warning signs and complaints from employees must not be ignored and efforts must be made as early as possible to correct bad behaviors; otherwise, employees will not believe their concerns are being heard or, even worse, will fail to seek help before it is too late.
The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for over sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others. As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.