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Statutory Remedy Prevails in Sexual Harassment Case

June 16, 2010
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A plaintiff who brings a statutory sexual harassment claim and a common-law negligent supervision and retention claim can recover only the statutory remedy if both are based on the same facts, the Texas Supreme Court has ruled.

According to the decision Friday, June 11, in Waffle House Inc. v. Cathie Williams, Williams quit her job as a waitress at a Waffle House restaurant in 2002 after unsuccessfully complaining about sexual harassment by a restaurant cook.

A jury found in Williams’ favor on both the statutory sexual harassment claim under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act as well as the common-law negligent supervision and retention claims.

It awarded her $425,000 in compensatory damages and $3.46 million in punitive damages. The trial court subsequently entered a judgment of $425,000 in compensatory damages and $425,000 in punitive damages.

Williams elected to recover on the common-law claim. Under the statutory claim, she would have received a maximum of $300,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. Waffle House appealed.

The Texas Supreme Court, on a 7-2 vote, overturned an appellate court decision and held that the statutory claim pre-empts the common-law claim “when the complained-of negligence is rooted in facts inseparable from those underlying the alleged harassment.”

The two claims against Waffle House “stem from the same boorish and objectionable conduct,” the high court ruled. “Where the gravamen of a plaintiff’s case is sexual discrimination that lies at the heart of the TCHRA, allowing negligence damages for a TCHRA violation would eclipse the legislature’s prescribed scheme.”

Allowing Williams “to recover on her tort claim would collide with the elaborately crafted statutory scheme, a scheme that, as with the workers compensation regime, incorporates a legislative attempt to balance various interests and concerns of employees and employers,” the high court ruled.

The case was remanded to the appellate court.  

Filed by Judy Greenwald of Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

 

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