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Response to workplace complaints must be prompt and effective

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Remedial efforts in response to an employee’s complaint must be effective as well as prompt, says an appellate court in restoring an Hispanic millwright’s discrimination charges.

Efrain Reynaga and his son Richard were the only millwrights of Mexican descent at Winston, Oregon-based Roseburg Forest Products Co., according to Thursday’s ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in Efrain Reynaga v. Roseburg Forest Products.

The lead millwright at the plant, Timothy Branaugh, allegedly subjected the father and son to racially derogatory comments and engaged in other harassing conduct, including making comments such as “minorities are taking over the country” and asking “Efrain, are all Mexican women fat?” according to the ruling.

They said also they were frequently assigned to “harder, dirtier and more dangerous” jobs, according to the ruling. After the hostile work environment worsened, Efrain Reynaga filed a complaint, and in December 2009 Mr. Branaugh’s schedule was rearranged so he would not be on the same shift as the two men.

The following month, though, the father and son arrived at work and, upon discovering Mr. Branaugh was also on-site, immediately left the premises. When they told a supervisor they would not work with Mr. Branaugh, they were suspended, and Efrain Reynaga was subsequently terminated.

Mr. Reynaga filed suit on charges including a hostile work environment disparate treatment and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. District Court in Portland dismissed the charges, which were reinstated by a 2-1 appeals court ruling.

 “The record indicates that Roseburg may have acted promptly in investigating Efrain’s complaints, but prompt action is not enough. The remedial measures must also be effective,” said the majority opinion.

“Because Efrain has established genuine disputes of fact as to whether Roseburg fostered and failed to remedy a racially hostile work environment, we reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment on Efrain’s hostile work environment claim,” said the ruling, which also reinstated his disparate treatment and retaliation claims.

The minority opinion disagreed with the hostile work environment ruling. “Because Roseburg took prompt and effective action to rectify the hostile work environment experienced by Reynaga and terminated Reynaga only after he repeatedly refused to work his assigned shifts, the district court concluded properly that his hostile work environment and disparate treatment claims should fail as a matter of law,” said the ruling.