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Employee handbooks continue to rule as far as courts are concerned

August 21, 2017

By Michael Burns, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

The value and purpose of an updated and thorough employee handbook is apparent in a recent case. In July, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for an employer in a disability discrimination case in large part because the company clearly communicated its complaint procedure in its employee handbook. The Plaintiff (former employee) failed to follow the procedure as detailed in the employee handbook.

In the appeal of Timothy Patton v. Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc. No.16-30879, (7/17/2017) Mr. Patton suffered from stuttering aggravated by stress and anxiety brought on in part by noise sensitivity. They “all go together” to cause his disability. Mr. Patton got his job at Jacobs Engineering through a temporary staffing agency. During his time at work Patton claimed he was harassed because of his stutter and suffered anxiety.  He claims this anxiety caused him to get into a car accident on the way to work one day, and after that he quit. During his employment, which lasted about a year and a half, he made some verbal complaints to both Jacobs and the temporary staffing firm, but he claimed they were ignored by both. 

After his car accident he did not return to work and subsequently filed a charge of discrimination with the State of Louisiana’s Civil Rights Commission and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  The EEOC took the case and conducted the investigation into Patton’s allegations but could not find anything to pursue and issued a notice of right to sue in November 2014. Patton then sued in both Louisiana state court and in the federal district court. Upon hearing the case the Louisiana district court granted summary judgement for the Defendant-employers on all claims. The district court found Patton did not utilize the complaint procedures in either employers’ anti-harassment policy. Patton then appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals looked at all the relevant discriminatory issues brought forth in the complaint and found nothing eschew in the lower courts reasonings toward the presence, or in this case, lack of presence, of proof that the employers’ behaviors in dealing with Patton’s situation was illegal. It also looked more closely at how Patton communicated his complaint of harassment discrimination at the employers. Patton argued his complaints to supervisors should have been sufficient. This was not accepted by the Court. The Appeals Court stated that Patton, the Plaintiff, “must show that the defendants attributed Patton’s limitation – sensitivity to noise – to a physical or mental impairment.” The Court held that because the internal complaint mechanism that was outlined in the employee handbook, among other places, was not followed, the employer could not be expected to engage in any appropriate accommodation or harassment response.  

In the ruling’s closing statements, The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals pointed to both employers’ employee handbooks.   Both handbooks clearly stated harassment and discrimination complaint procedures.  Patton failed to show any evidence that he complied with them, which meant that he did not take advantage of the corrective opportunities provided by the employer.

Clearly stated complaint procedures must be part of any employer’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. Further, a general procedure that outlines how to formally communicate adverse employment activity (whatever it might be) to management is also recommended.  The primary employee communication tool to do this is the employee handbook/manual.

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