The United States Supreme Court's decisions on sexual harassment last year highlighted the necessity for employers to implement good harassment policies and promptly and thoroughly investigate complaints of harassment to avoid liability for harassment lawsuits. A recent Illinois appellate court decision provides additional motivation for employers to conduct thorough investigations when employees complain about harassment.
In Vickers v. Abbott Laboratories, the plaintiff, the alleged harasser, sued his employer and multiple co-workers for defamation based on statements made about the plaintiff during the investigation of a harassment complaint against him. Assuming without deciding that the alleged statements were defamatory, the court ruled that the statements were covered by a qualified privilege, giving the defendants a defense to the defamation claim, because: (1) the individuals reporting the harassment had an interest in stopping harassment and abuse by the plaintiff; (2) the employer and divisional vice president had an interest in investigating employee concerns and taking action to prevent further harassment; and (3) there is a definite general public interest in eradicating sexual harassment in the workplace.
Because a qualified privilege was established, the statements could be actionable only if the plaintiff could show that the defendants abused the privilege through a reckless act that showed a disregard for the plaintiff's rights, including the failure to investigate properly the truth of the matter, limit the scope of the material or send the material to only the proper parties. The plaintiff argued that the defendants abused their privilege by failing to investigate properly the truth of the allegations against him. In rejecting the plaintiff's argument, the court found that the defendants deliberately followed company policies in accordance with federal law and investigated the allegations into plaintiff's conduct before taking action regarding his employment status. Further, although the plaintiff argued that the employer should have conducted a more thorough investigation, the investigator explained that interviewing additional employees would have unnecessarily risked creating rumors. Accordingly, the court found no abuse of the qualified privilege by the defendants and upheld the summary judgment ruling in favor of the defendants.
In light of Vickers, employers have one more reason to conduct thorough and prompt investigations of harassment complaints as well as other allegations of employee misconduct. Further, because disseminating information beyond those who "need to know" may also be a basis for finding that a defendant abused a qualified privilege, employers also should ensure that such investigations are conducted as confidentially as possible.