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The practice judges never forgive: Retaliation

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

Some employers are slow learners—they still don’t understand the danger of retaliation. Judges are fairly tolerant of all kinds of inappropriate employment practices, but they really, really don’t like it when an employer punishes someone who has just complained about those practices.

Recent case: Wendy Urban worked for a fitness center for nearly a year. She quickly found that she didn’t like the sexually charged environment. She kept careful track of her supervisor’s behavior, which included staring at women’s bodies, making lewd comments and constantly peppering conversations with curse words.

Urban claimed she regularly complained to other supervisors, but nothing changed. One day, she grew so disgusted she walked out—and the fitness center fired her.

Then she got a letter from corporate headquarters warning her to stay away from the center and to avoid contact with club members. Otherwise, it said, the police would be called.

Urban sued, alleging she had worked in a sexually hostile environment and had been targeted for retaliation. She argued that when the corporate office approved her discharge and sent the letter, that constituted retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment.

The company argued that no one at the corporate office knew about her earlier complaints.

The court said that Urban didn’t have a sexual harassment claim despite the unsavory behavior her supervisor exhibited. But it said her retaliation claim could go forward. The court had no patience for the company’s claim it didn’t know about her complaint, calling the argument an attempt to avoid liability by being willfully ignorant. (Urban v. Capital Fitness, No. 08-3858, ED NY, 2010)

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