Employee Who Was Terminated After Refusing to Work with His Alleged Harasser Gets his Day in Court

Category: Client Update
Date: Mar 15, 2017 01:30 PM

Efrain Reynaga and his son worked for Roseburg Forest Products where they were the only millwrights of Mexican descent.  The lead millwright, Timothy Branaugh, allegedly harassed Reynaga with racially disparaging comments.  After Reynaga made verbal and written complaints, management initiated an investigation into Reynaga’s allegations.  Ultimately, the company adjusted Branaugh’s schedule so that he and the Reynagas would not work the same shift. 

A short time later, Reynaga and his son arrived to work and learned that Branaugh was also on site.  They immediately left the premises.  When they returned for their next shift a few days later, Roseburg’s Human Resources and Safety Supervisor advised them that Branaugh would sometimes be on site with them.  He noted that Branaugh was instructed not to have any contact with them unless an emergency arose, directed them to do the same, and asked whether they would complete their shift that day with Branaugh on the premises.  They refused to work at the same time as Branaugh and were terminated shortly after.  

Reynaga sued Roseburg in federal court, alleging, among other things, three causes of action for discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: (1) hostile work environment; (2) disparate treatment; and (3) retaliation.  The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Roseburg on all claims.  But, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed most of the district court’s ruling. 

The Ninth Circuit first addressed Reynaga’s hostile work environment claim, and specifically whether Branaugh’s conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment.  The Court found there was sufficient evidence for a jury to reasonably conclude this standard was met.  Reynaga identified several instances where Branaugh was generally derogatory toward him or made explicit racial and national origin comments, including several disparaging remarks specifically about Mexicans.  According to the Court, a reasonable jury could find that this conduct created a hostile work environment, as evidenced by the confrontations between Branaugh and Reynaga, Reynaga lodging multiple complaints, Roseburg having to separate Branaugh and the Reynagas, and the Reynagas leaving the workplace because Branaugh was present.

The Court also held that Roseburg could be found liable for the hostile work environment that Branaugh allegedly created.  The Court found that while Roseburg may have acted promptly in investigating Reynaga’s complaints, a jury could reasonably conclude that Roseburg failed to then take effective remedial measures.  For example, Reynaga alleged that Branaugh’s harassment continued even after Reynaga filed a verbal complaint and management met with Branaugh to address the issue.  In addition, despite initially separating the men, Roseburg later had them work at the same time.

The Court then turned to Reynaga’s disparate treatment claim.  It found there could be an inference of discrimination based on Roseburg’s treatment of two non-Hispanic employees compared with how it treated Reynaga.  The record noted that Branaugh, who was white, was hardly reprimanded and kept his job despite being the subject of several complaints.  In addition, on one occasion, Roseburg searched Reynaga’s locker during a narcotics sweep, but allegedly did not search the locker of a white co-worker even though drug-sniffing dogs were alerted to it.             

The Ninth Circuit also found that a jury could reasonably conclude that Reynaga’s termination was in retaliation for his complaints against Branaugh.  Although Roseburg claimed that it terminated Reynaga for walking off the job and refusing to work, the Court held that a jury could find these reasons pretexutual.   The Court reasoned that Reynaga had worked at Roseburg for more than five years, yet he was terminated barely one month after making a written complaint.  In addition, the Court explained, whereas Reynaga was discharged for missing just one and a half days of work, Branaugh was not seriously punished despite allegedly subjecting Reynaga to a hostile work environment.    

Reynaga v. Roseburg Forest Products (9th Cir. 2017) 847 F.3d 678.

Note: 

This case is an important reminder that an employer’s failure to promptly and effectively stop harassing conduct can create liability.  Simply investigating a complaint is not enough; the employer must also take remedial steps to resolve the harassment and prevent it from continuing.  

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