It’s the worst case scenario for anyone who’s been harassed at work. The harassing supervisor not only makes your work life miserable but invades your personal life and becomes violent. A federal appeals court has held that an employer may be held responsible for the murder of an employee by a harassing supervisor, even when the crime happened outside work.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in March that a lawsuit against Home Depot by the mother of an employee murdered by her supervisor can go forward, reports the Associated Press. The court overruled the trial court’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit as not stating a viable claim under Illinois state law. The appellate court also found that Home Depot had a duty to protect the deceased employee, Alisha Bromfield, from the criminal acts of her supervisor, Brian Cooper, known to the company as a sexual harasser.
According to the federal appeals court decision,
- Bromfield worked for Cooper for five years, on and off.
- He had a documented history of sexually harassing young, female coworkers like Bromfield and Home Depot was well aware of his behavior.
- Cooper was romantically interested in Bromfield, but she rejected his advances.
- He started making inappropriate comments to her and subjected her to verbal abuse.
- Cooper became violent at work at times, throwing and slamming things, and he tried to monitor and control Bromfield outside of work.
- As her supervisor Cooper required her to go on business trips with him and frequently denied her requests for breaks.
- Bromfield repeatedly complained to Home Depot about Cooper. The company ordered him to attend anger management classes, but it never followed through and enforced this requirement, end his supervisory responsibilities or assign Bromfield to another supervisor.
- Cooper told Bromfield if she didn’t attend a wedding with him he would fire her or reduce her hours if she refused. She agreed and after the wedding Cooper took Bromfield to a motel room, asked her to enter a relationship and after she refused, Bromfield was murdered and her corpse raped.
- At the time of her death Bromfield was 21 years old and pregnant.
At the trial level Home Depot stated the lawsuit should be dismissed because it had no legal obligation to protect Bromfield from the criminal acts of Cooper committed outside the workplace. The trial judge agreed but the Seventh Circuit decided that under Illinois law employers have a duty to act reasonably in hiring, supervising and retaining employees. The court found,
- The fact Bromfield was murdered outside working hours and off work property didn’t defeat the negligence claim because Cooper used his supervisory authority to coerce Bromfield to attend the wedding.
- But for the fact Home Deport granted his authority, Cooper wouldn’t have been able to force Bromfield to attend the wedding.
- The claim is also consistent with federal anti-discrimination laws since an employer could be liable for off-duty violent acts by a supervisor it knows, or should have known, was harassing the victim.
Home Depot hasn’t been found liable for damages. At this point the appeals court has only ruled Bromfield’s next of kin can proceed with the lawsuit. A trial will have to sort out the factual issues and apply the laws of the State of Illinois to finally decide liability and damages.
If you believe you have been sexually harassed in your workplace, take action to protect yourself and your legal rights before the situation gets worse. Contact the employment attorneys for workers at Hanan M. Isaacs, P.C., at 609-683-7400, or contact us online to set up a near-term reduced fee initial consultation at our Central Jersey location in Kingston. We will listen to your facts, explain the law, and discuss your best legal options to achieve maximum financial and social justice. Call today. You will be glad you did.