Who To Believe When Sexual Harassment is Disputed?

By Robert G. Chadwick, Jr., Managing Member, Seltzer Chadwick Soefje & Ladik, PLLC.

News stories, such as the accusations against U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore and his corresponding denials, serve as reminders of what many employers already know from experience; often, an investigation of a sexual harassment claim yields two conflicting stories. The victim’s story is one of improper behavior by a supervisor, co-worker, customer or vendor. The accused’s story is one of denial and perhaps speculation regarding an ulterior motive for the harassment claim. Especially when there are no witnesses to the alleged behavior, the conflicting stories present the employer with a difficult question – what do I do now?

One action which should not be considered by the employer is the termination of the investigation without any analysis of the credibility of the competing stories. If the employer ultimately takes no remedial action, this action risks a claim by the victim, as part of a legal claim for sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) or state law, that the investigation was merely cursory. If the employer fires the accused, this action risks a claim by the accused that the investigation was a mere pretext for sexual discrimination in violation of Title VII or state law.

So, how does an employer go about assessing the credibility of two competing stories? In 1999, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) published guidance as to this question.

If there are conflicting versions of relevant events, the employer will have to weigh each party’s credibility. Credibility assessments can be critical in determining whether the alleged harassment in fact occurred. Factors to consider include:

Inherent plausibility: Is the testimony believable on its face? Does it make sense?
Demeanor: Did the person seem to be telling the truth or lying?
Motive to falsify: Did the person have a reason to lie?
Corroboration: Is there witness testimony (such as testimony by eye-witnesses, people who saw the person soon after the alleged incidents, or people who discussed the incidents with him or her at around the time that they occurred) or physical evidence (such as written documentation) that corroborates the party’s testimony?
Past record: Did the alleged harasser have a history of similar behavior in the past?

None of the above factors are determinative as to credibility. For example, the fact that there are no eye-witnesses to the alleged harassment by no means necessarily defeats the complainant’s credibility, since harassment often occurs behind closed doors. Furthermore, the fact that the alleged harasser engaged in similar behavior in the past does not necessarily mean that he or she did so again.

When weighing the credibility of a sexual harassment complaint, moreover, it is not necessary that the employer believe either story “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Indeed, holding the victim or accused to such a burden may itself be discriminatory.  All that is necessary is that the employer reasonably believe one of the two competing stories to be more believable than the other story.

So, what if the credibility assessment is still inconclusive as to the competing stories? Again, the risk of taking no remedial action whatsoever is a legal claim by the victim. At the very least, an employer should formulate and implement a plan to monitor the situation more closely. The employer should also consider sexual harassment training or refresher training if sexual harassment training has previously been provided.

To be sure, credibility assessment is not an exact science. The employer may never know the complete truth even after an investigation. Even if the truth proves to be elusive, however, the employer may still be called upon to defend in litigation the integrity of its effort to determine the truth. Accordingly, the goal of an employer in conducting a sexual harassment investigation must be a reasonably diligent and unbiased effort to determine the truth.  The consequences of not achieving this goal can be liability for discrimination under Title VII or state law.

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