The recent Appellate Division decision of Edries v. Quick Chek Food Stores, Inc., (A-0091-15T1, January 20, 2017), illustrates the importance of anti-harassment policies in lawsuits involving claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.   When Quick Check hired plaintiff, she received the company’s Team Member Handbook, which contained an anti-harassment policy.  The company also had a separate “No Harassment” policy, which was distributed to plaintiff; and the company required plaintiff to watch training videos on sexual harassment.

At the company’s “Total Customer Dedication” awards dinner, one of Quick Chek’s loss prevention representatives made a series of vulgar comments to plaintiff.  The next day, plaintiff completed an anonymous survey, noting that the loss prevention representative has “a filthy and nasty mouth and he needs to stop with his sexual comments . . .”  In addition, in response to a question regarding what she would add or change about the dinner, plaintiff stated, “just to feel comfortable and not have to deal with people like [the loss prevention representative] and his sexual comments.

Upon receipt of the survey, Quick Chek conducted an investigation regarding the incident.  The investigation included meetings with plaintiff’s supervisor, discussions with human resource members, and a meeting with the company’s General Counsel.  In response to plaintiff’s complaints, the company issued a “constructive advice” written warning to the alleged harasser, which included requiring the employee to decline assignments at plaintiff’s store,  attend an anti-harassment training program,  refrain from making any further inappropriate comments, and refrain from taking any retribution against plaintiff.

Nearly two years later, plaintiff went on disability leave, and asked the company’s Chief Executive Officer if the company could demote the alleged harasser, or move him to different region “so she would never have to go to meetings where he speaks . . .” She also advised that she refrained from applying for promotions because she was afraid of having to interact with him.  Plaintiff never returned to work from her disability leave, and filed a complaint alleging hostile work environment and retaliation in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

At the conclusion of discovery, the trial court dismissed the case, granting summary judgment in favor of Quick Chek.  In so doing, the trial court concluded that the company had “effective procedures for reporting and responding to complaints of harassment” and that the company “did, in fact, respond in an effective way to [plaintiff’s] complaint of harassment.”  With regard to plaintiff’s retaliation claim, the trial court found that there were no “adverse employment consequences to [plaintiff’s] complaint.”

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s rulings.  In so affirming, the Appellate Division agreed that Quick Chek had effective procedures in place to report and remedy harassment given that it had “formal policies prohibiting harassment in the workplace,” “complaint structures for employee’s use,” and conducted “anti-harassment training.”  The Appellate Division also noted that the company disciplined the alleged harasser and there was no evidence that he ever harassed plaintiff or any other employee again.

From an employer’s perspective, this case clearly illustrates the importance of having anti-harassment policies in place and implementing said policies.  From an employee’s perspective, the case illustrates the importance of utilizing a company’s anti-harassment policies in the event of harassment and/or discrimination in the workplace.  Indeed, if the employer in this matter had not adequately remedied the alleged harassment, the result of this matter may have been different.

If you have any questions about anti-harassment policies and/or workplace harassment or discrimination, please contact the Law Office of Frank A. Custode, LLC.