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Indefinite suspension is retaliation, even without discharge

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

When a company faces sexual harassment or other discrimination complaints, the investigation has to start as soon as possible. Sometimes that means suspending participants while you sort things out.

A prompt conclusion to a thorough investigation is the key to avoiding retaliation charges when you tell everyone to take a “time out.” Move too slowly and suspensions might be seen as retaliation for bringing complaints.

Recent case: After police officer Patricia Denhof and several other members of the Grand Rapids police department filed gender-discrimination and harassment complaints, she noticed what she thought was subtle retaliation—such as not receiving prompt back-up.

When she complained, she was called in for a “fitness for duty” test. The examining doctor concluded she was unfit for duty until she addressed “psychological problems.” Her own doctors found no disorders. But the police department refused to allow her to return until she “underwent treatment.”

Suspended for over two years, Denhof sued for retaliation. A jury awarded her more than $1 million for mental distress plus lost past and future earnings, which the court cut to $350,000 plus lost wages.

On appeal, the 6th Circuit refused to overturn the verdict. The court found ample evidence that the indefinite suspension wasn’t based on a reasonable assessment of Denhof’s fitness, but on retaliation. (Denhof, et al., v. City of Grand Rapids, No. 05-1819, 6th Cir., 2007)  

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