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Warning: Winning in state court doesn’t mean you can’t be sued in federal court

by on
in Employment Law,Human Resources

It may seem terribly unfair, but an angry employee with a discrimination ax to grind may sue your organization in multiple forums for almost exactly the same alleged offense.

That’s one good reason to get an attorney involved right away. Your lawyer can push early on to consolidate all the claims into one. At the very least, an attorney can manage your legal response, so the outcome of the first claim doesn’t negatively affect subsequent claims.

Recent case: Shawn Brooks, who is black, quit his job at Philadelphia Eagles Radio after a manager gave him a “dress for success” book that Brooks said stereotyped blacks. He filed a Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) complaint and an EEOC complaint. In the PHRC complaint, he said the book created a hostile environment.

The PHRC held a hearing and awarded Brooks $600,000 in economic damages. The radio station appealed, and Commonwealth Court overturned the PHRC decision, ruling that simply distributing the book wasn’t enough to create a racially hostile work environment.

Brooks then sued in federal court, adding several alleged racially hostile incidents that happened before the book incident. He alleged that, taken together, these created the hostile environment. The station argued that he had already sued on the same facts and should not get another chance.

The federal court disagreed. It said the claims, though similar, were not identical. Fortunately for the station, the court still dismissed Brooks’ hostile work environment claim. It said even with the additional allegations, he hadn’t shown that the environment was so pervasively hostile that a reasonable person belonging to the same protected class as Brooks would quit. (Brooks v. CBS Radio, No. 07-0519, ED PA, 2007)

Final note: Let this case be a lesson. Don’t hand out reading material you haven’t vetted for offense. This was an expensive proposition, even though the station won in the end.

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