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Nichols v. Reliant Engineering & Manufacturing

August 29, 2006

SHIRLEY NICHOLS, RELATOR,
v.
RELIANT ENGINEERING & MANUFACTURING, INC., RESPONDENT, DEPARTMENT OF EMPLOYMENT AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, RESPONDENT.



Department of Employment & Economic Development File No. 12120 05.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Harassment by a fellow employee, coupled with an employer's failure to effectively address the harassment of a co-worker, may satisfy the good reason to quit one's employment as required under Minn. Stat. § 268.095, subd. 3 (2004).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Randall, Judge

Reversed

Considered and decided by Willis, Presiding Judge, Lansing, Judge, and Randall, Judge.

OPINION

Relator challenges the decision by the unemployment law judge (ULJ) affirming his earlier decision that relator quit her job without good reason caused by the employer and was disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits. Relator argues that: (a) she did not quit; and (b) if she did, she had good reason to do so based on the physical and verbal abuse by a co-worker, of which her employer was aware. We reverse.

FACTS

Relator was employed by Reliant Engineering & Manufacturing, Inc. (Reliant Engineering) for approximately eight-and-one-half years as an administrative assistant. She left her place of employment July 21, 2005.

During her employment with Reliant Engineering, relator had a strained relationship with one particular co-worker, Scott Stach (Stach), who worked as a press brake operator in a different area of Reliant Engineering's building. The difficulties with Stach began in late March or early April of 2004. On that occasion, relator noticed that Stach was swearing and in a bad mood. Relator joked that he did not seem very happy, to which Stach stated that he was not happy because "you are f-ckin' out here you b-tch." There were a number of other employees of Reliant Engineering within the vicinity who heard this and laughed at Stach's comments. Stach attempted to apologize to relator on the following work day. Relator refused to accept the apology, demanding that it be made in front of the individuals who were present when the original comments were made.

Relator alleges that from that point forward, Stach was cold toward her. For instance, Stach would intentionally let doors close after him rather than holding them for her. In one instance, relator was carrying a chair and when Stach refused to hold the door for her, the door closed, hit the chair she was carrying, and pushed it into her chest. The company testified oral warnings were issued to Stach for this and other complaints made by relator regarding his behavior.

At another time, Stach was operating a forklift in the vicinity of relator who was standing in a "safe zone", a demarcated area where no operated vehicle is supposed to travel for the safety of pedestrians and employees of Reliant Engineering. Stach backed the forklift into the safe-zone and came close to relator. Relator was alerted to the danger the forklift to her posed by another individual. Relator again complained to management. Stach was issued a reprimand for improper operation of the forklift and notice of this was placed in his employee file. Relator claimed she was not informed of any disciplinary action taken against Stach.

In the last encounter with Stach, relator was in the company's break-room talking on the telephone. Stach kicked open the door of the break-room; this is a common, but disapproved of, occurrence at Reliant Engineering. This startled relator who screamed aloud. Relator admitted that Stach immediately apologized and stated that he was unaware she was behind the door. The break-room has windows surrounding its doors, but it is unclear whether relator would have been visible from the outside.

Upon exiting the break-room, relator went back to her desk and informed her supervisor, Pam Perales (Perales), that Stach deliberately kicked in the door at her. Relator then returned to Stach's area of Reliant Engineering's building and confronted him personally about kicking the door open. In response to relator asking if Stach thought it was funny to scare her half-to-death Stach responded by stating "get away from me you f-ckin' b-tch if not I'll hit you with this part" (a "four foot by two foot" paddle-like metal part with sharp edges as described by relator).

Relator asked Perales and Stach's supervisor "what [they were] going to do about [Stach]." Relator told Perales that she couldn't "put up with [this] any longer" and that she was "scared to know what [Stach is] gonna do [ ] next." Finally, relator stated "I'm going to go, I have to leave." After gathering her lunch box and purse, relator left the office. She returned moments later to retrieve another personal item and noticed that Perales and Askren were in the shop area of the building. Unbeknownst to relator, Perales and Askren were at this time discussing the best course of action to take. Reliant Engineering testified that they planned to call an employee-wide meeting that afternoon to discuss the dangers of kicking open doors and planned to speak with Stach personally again regarding his behavior toward relator.

Management of Reliant Engineering testified that oral and written warnings had been issued to Stach. There was conflicting testimony regarding whether relator was informed that Stach was disciplined for his actions. The ULJ determined that "Reliant [Engineering] was under no obligation to inform Nichols of the action they had taken and probably would have been violating Stach's rights to confidentiality if they had done so." Reliant Engineering reportedly attempted to contact relator approximately five times the day following these events; receiving a busy signal on her home telephone line, they did not attempt to contact her again. After being unsuccessful in their attempts to contact relator, and having received no contact from relator themselves, Reliant Engineering sent her last pay check with a letter relaying their conclusion that relator had terminated her employment by leaving and ...


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