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Worst Response to a Sexual Harassment Complaint

Rebecca Nichols drove a semi-truck for Tri-National Logistics and RMR Driver Services (“TNI”). Because of her poor driving record, TNI required her to drive with a co-worker, James Paris. During a trip lasting about one week, Paris asked Nichols if she was interested in a romantic relationship, exposed himself to her, and three or four times stripped down to his underwear and leaned over Nichols while she drove. Nichols told him to stop.

Nichols reported Paris’ conduct to TNI’s safety department approximately five times, asking for a different driving partner. TNI told Nichols to “endure it” until the trip was complete.

During a mandatory rest break, Paris offered to sleep with Nichols, who denied the request. At first Paris became angry and took away Nichols’ keys and cell phone, but eventually drove her to a motel.

Nichols reported Paris’s proposition to TNI, which found another driving partner for Nichols. After spending three weeks with Nichols, the driving partner witnessed Nichols drive over the speed limit, keep her tractor brakes on, fail to anticipate traffic light changes, run through at least one red light and talk on her cell phone while driving. As a result, TNI terminated Nichols’ employment.

Nichols sued TNI and Paris, claiming that TNI had discriminated against her on the basis of her sex in violation of Title VII and had also retaliated against her for complaining about sexual harassment.

The Court ruled in favor of Nichols on her discrimination claim based on facts that showed Nichols was offended by Paris’ conduct and complained to personnel “who had the power to terminate the harassment.” TNI “failed to take appropriate action,” the Court held, such as “remov[ing] Paris from her truck,” “reprimand[ing] Paris” or “arrang[ing] for lodging” instead of letting Nichols be “stranded.”

However, Nichols’ retaliation claim failed. Before the incidents involving Paris, Nichols had been cited for nonoperational truck lights, had damaged the door of a trailer, and had gotten her truck stuck in mud. This, when considered with her three weeks of Mad Max freewheeling, destroyed her retaliation claim.

So, while TNI could legally fire Nichols for bad driving and preventable property damage, the Court sent the sex discrimination claim to a jury to determine “whether Nichols subjectively felt abused by Paris, [whether] TNI was aware of his conduct, [and whether] TNI failed to take appropriate action.”[Nichols v. Tri-National Logistics, Inc. (8th Cir. 2016) no. 15-1153].