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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Bullies Can Be Costly

 By: Thomas Eden

Patricia Hahn, a licensed vocational nurse alleged in her lawsuit she was bullied and sexually harassed by a doctor at work and the case was recently tried before a Dallas, Texas jury. Specifically, Hahn testified that the doctor had yelled, berated and punched her in the face with clinched fists, and later abruptly swung his two clinched fists to within inches of her face. On another occasion, he bent her backward in her chair, got inches away from her face as he loudly screamed threats and insults in her face. And that on three occasions, the doctor screamed at her with raised arms and clenched fists, saying “Just shut up. Just shut up, I'm sick of you,” according to court documents.

Hahn reported the behavior to her human resources department. Shortly thereafter Hahn testified she was called by the doctor into an after-hours meeting in his office, where he gave her a “demonstration” of what screaming was to prove he had not screamed at her previously.

Hahn claimed that this all occurred while working for a Dallas Urology Practice during work hours over a period of three years. Hahn was eventually fired.

On Monday of this week the Dallas jury returned a $1.08 million verdict in her favor on claims of sexual harassment and intentional infliction of emotional — which verdict will not be enforced. As luck would have, it just minutes before the jury returned from deliberations a $440,000 settlement was inked by the parties. In fact, the parties were signing the settlement paperwork when court staff knocked on the door and informed them a jury verdict had been reached. The verdict came after six days of trial and about four-and-a-half hours of deliberation.

Common Sense Counsel: This Dallas jury proved to be not very tolerant of bullying. While bullying alone is not discrimination under federal or Alabama law, when combined with protected status, or intentionally directed towards an employee who has engaged in protected conduct, it can be a dangerous courtroom combination. Bulling can be verbal, physical and non-verbal. Below are abbreviated descriptions:

·  Verbal Bullying: using browbeating language or behavior, slandering, ridiculing or maligning        a person or his/her family; spreading rumors or gossip regarding individuals; offensive name        calling or nicknaming; using a person as the target of ...;
·  Physical Bullying: pushing; shoving; kicking; poking; tripping; assault, or threat of ...;
·  Non-verbal Bullying: non-verbal threatening gestures, looks or actions that convey threatening      messages; purposefully singling out, ignoring, excluding ...

This record verdict should cause every employer to take notice and update their Professional Conduct and Prohibition Against Harassment Policy to include anti-bullying language, train on the updated policy, nip it in the bud when you witness it, promptly investigate when reported and take corrective action. Employers and Human Resource professionals need to watch out for their managers who cross the line between legitimate criticisms and berating and belittling an employee.

Tommy Eden is a partner working out of the Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP offices in Opelika, AL and West Point, GA and a member of the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law and serves on the Board of Directors for the East Alabama SHRM Chapter. He can be contacted at teden@constangy.com or 334-246-2901. Blog at www.alabamaatwork.com