Workplace Harassment

Workplace Harassment

Both federal law and Missouri law prohibit hostile work environments and discriminatory harassment in the workplace. This includes, but is not limited to, sexual harassment. Other protected categories, such as race, religion, national origin and disability, may be the subject of and a cause behind workplace harassment or hostile work environments.

We know the issues and stakes at play in workplace harassment and hostile work environment cases. We understand the critical importance of establishing clear and effective workplace policies, procedures and practices that prohibit and protect against such harassment and hostile environments. We also understand the seriousness of complaints of workplace harassment or hostility and the need for urgent and thorough action by management to hear and investigate any such complaints or concerns. Upon receipt of a formal or informal complaint of harassment, the need to act quickly, fairly, and effectively in a manner consistent with workplace policy cannot be understated.

Given relatively recent statutory amendments in Missouri, federal law and Missouri law on hostile work environments and workplace harassment are very similar, but not necessarily identical in all respects. Under Title VII and the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”), to prevail on a claim for hostile work environment, a plaintiff must generally prove: (1) he or she is a member of a protected group; (2) he or she was subjected to unwelcome protected group harassment; (3) his or her membership in a protected group was the motivating factor in the harassment; (4) a term, condition, or privilege of his or her employment was affected by the harassment; and (5) the employer knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take appropriate action. See Hales v. Casey’s Marketing Co., 886 F.3d 730, 735 (8th Cir. 2018);Alhalabi v. Mo. Dept. of Nat. Res., 300 S.W.3d 518, 527 (Mo. Ct. App. 2009); § 213.101 RSMo.

Discriminatory harassment affects a term, condition, or privilege of employment if it is sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of a plaintiff’s employment and create an abusive working environment. Alhalabi, 300 S.W.3d at 527; Hales, 886 F.3d at 735. The conduct must be sufficient to create a hostile work environment, both as it was subjectively viewed by the plaintiff and as it would be objectively viewed by a reasonable person. Alhalabi, 300 S.W.3d at 527. Once evidence of improper conduct and subjective offense is introduced, it is largely up to a jury to determine if the conduct rose to the level of being abusive. McKinney v. City of Kansas City, 576 S.W.3d 194, 199 (Mo. Ct. App. 2019). When assessing hostile work environment claims, courts look to the totality of the circumstances. Id.

It is critical for employers to understand the risks and liabilities at stake in a workplace harassment claim. In addition to back pay and other forms of compensatory damages, punitive damage awards are available. Under federal law, an award of punitive damages requires the plaintiff to show that his employer engaged in a discriminatory practice with “malice” or “reckless indifference” to the plaintiff’s federal protected rights. Bryant v. Jeffrey Sand Co., 919 F.3d 520, 546 (8th Cir. 2019) (punitive damages award affirmed where record contained evidence that plaintiff repeatedly complained to his supervisors that his manager was using racial slurs, the company took no action to discipline the manager or prevent further harassment, and the company did not have any formal or informal policy prohibiting workplace discrimination); Williams v. ConAgra Poultry Co., 378 F.3d 790, 796 (8th Cir. 2004) (“when the victim of harassment repeatedly complains to various supervisors of harassment and the harassment is not stopped, a submissible case on punitive damages has been made”). Missouri law is similar: a party may make a claim for punitive damages where it “establishe[s] with convincing clarity—that is, that it was highly probable—that the defendant’s conduct was outrageous because of evil motive or reckless indifference.” Brady v. Curators of Univ. of Mo., 213 S.W.3d 101, 109 (Mo. Ct. App. 2006) (affirming punitive damages award in MHRA case).

However, both Title VII and the MHRA set limits or caps on punitive damages that an employee may recover. These limits or caps vary based upon the size of the employer involved in the case. Under Title VII, the caps range from $50,000 for employers of 50-100 employees up to $300,000 for employers of 501+ employees. Under the MHRA, the caps work slightly differently. Section 213.111.4 RSMo. provides: “ [t]he sum of the amount of actual damages, including damages for future pecuniary losses, emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, and other nonpecuniary losses, and punitive damages awarded under this section shall not exceed for each complaining party: (1) actual back pay and interest on back pay; and (2) [the specified monetary caps based on the size of the employer].” § 213.111.4 RSMo. (emphasis added). The MHRA caps range from $50,000 for employers of 6-99 employees up to $500,000 for employers of 501+ employees. Id. In other words, under the MHRA, the caps apply not only to punitive damages but all other actual damages excluding “actual back pay and interest on back pay.” Id.

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If you or your company have a complaint or concern about workplace harassment of any kind, contact us immediately at (314) 645-4100 or by email at Time and prompt action are essential in these cases. All consultations will be held strictly confidential.

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