November 9, 2009
November 9, 2009
Oregon Court of Appeals Upholds Claim of Negligent Failure to Investigate
by P.K. Runkles-Pearson
Stoel Rives LLP, Attorneys at Law
In Steele v. Mayoral et al., the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that a plaintiff could take to the jury her claim that her employer had failed to prevent sexual harassment by her supervisor by not investigating earlier incidents about the supervisor’s relationships with other employees.
The plaintiff, a high school guidance counselor, was dating her supervisor, the principal. She complained that the supervisor had sexually assaulted her during a date. The school district investigated the complaint and recommended the supervisor be terminated. The plaintiff sued. In addition to alleging sexual harassment and retaliation, she also alleged that the school district had been negligent by not terminating her supervisor before the incident had even occurred.
She based that allegation on three earlier incidents involving the principal’s relationships with other school district employees. The juicy allegations involve (1) the principal’s affair with the wife of another principal in the same school district, (2) the principal’s complaint that another district employee was “stalking” him after he “rebuffed her advances,” and (3) yet another employee’s allegation that she was dating the principal when he slept with yet another employee. The plaintiff alleged that the school district should have investigated those incidents – and that if it had, it would have terminated her supervisor years before.
The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s negligence claim, but the Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that a jury should be able to decide whether or not the school district’s failure to investigate had caused the sexual harassment. We don’t know what a jury would say about liability in this case, but it is a sobering reminder to employers to investigate all incidents of potential misconduct involving the workplace.