A former Waffle House waitress alleges that she had been sexually and racially harassed by a co-worker and her supervisor for a number of months. Her case took her to a district court and ended at the Court of Appeals.
The woman, who is white, was hired to work at a Georgia Waffle House in October of 2007. The two employees named in the lawsuit are black: a cook who was employed in November and a man named to supervisor in December. According to the plaintiff, the cook began harassing her soon after he was hired. She claims that there was unsolicited touching, lewd topics, and other inappropriate behavior, including continually asking the waitress on a date.
The supervisor’s alleged harassing conduct started in August of the following year, after the woman had left the job and asked to return to the waiting position. She claims that he made inappropriate comments, such as suggesting that she owed him a “huge favor” for rehiring her. Both men were allegedly harassing her for the next couple of months, including references to the waitresses being with black men sexually. In September, the woman called the Waffle House Associate Hotline to complain about the reputed harassment. The hotline is a free 24-hour number for the company’s employees to anonymously lodge complaints. An investigation by Waffle House was initiated a few days later, but the woman, on advice of counsel, declined to cooperate.
Due to the alleged harassment, the woman left in the middle of her shift in September. She was granted a transfer and went to work at another Waffle House location. She filed suit against Waffle House and the supervisor, claiming racial and sexual harassment and discrimination, retaliation, the state law claims of negligent supervision and negligent retention (the latter is when the employer knew or should have known that an employee was unqualified), and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The court granted summary judgment for the defendants on all counts. On appeal, the plaintiff argued severe and pervasive harassment, a hostile work environment, Waffle House’s negligence in retaining the workers with the knowledge of the harassment, and the supervisor’s harassment causing emotional distress.
The appeals court disagreed that the woman genuinely believed that the harassment was “severe” for three basic reasons: she waited so long – nearly 10 months – before calling the hotline to complain, she asked the cook (one of her supposed harassers) to help her get her job back, and she admitted to being “appreciative and happy” when returning to her job. She likewise admitted that she and the cook would share a “friendly” hug when they saw one another, and there was video evidence of the two hugging and kissing from September of 2008. She further conceded that she “joked around” with her co-worker. In short, the appeals court believed the men’s behavior was “rude and boorish” and neither severe nor pervasive. Interference in her duties was also not an issue, as she had little contact with both men – working a full shift with the cook only five times. By extension, the negligent retention claim failed.
The U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision in favor of the company and the supervisor.Waffle House Waitress Says She Was Sexually, Racially Harassed by Harrison Barnes