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Expanding the Scope of Sexual Harassment Investigations: The Starbucks Case

Sexual HarassmentThe recent case of Moore v. Starbucks gives a good indication of the expanding ramifications of workplace sexual harassment and the importance of thoroughly investigating it.

If you missed it, the basic facts of the case are these:

Kati Moore, a 16 year old back in 2005, began a job at Starbucks. Her 24 year old supervisor, Timothy Horton, asked her out and the two began a sexual relationship. Kati Moore eventually confided to her mother about the relationship and the mother contacted Starbucks.

The HR department investigated and although Kati Moore freely admitted the relationship, Timothy Horton denied it. The investigation essentially stopped at that point. Because no actual accusation of sexual harassment was made at the time, Timothy Horton was never disciplined.

Kati Moore brought a $16.8 million sexual harassment suit against Starbucks. In a federal district court, Starbucks filed several pre-trial challenges but the judge kept siding with the plaintiff. Starbucks decided to settle a few weeks before the case was scheduled to go to trial.

Those are the basic facts. In defending itself, Starbucks relied on several facets of the situation, including:

  • Although Kati Moore requested and was granted a transfer to another store, she continued the sexual relationship with Timothy Horton.
  • Starbucks had no indication of sexual harassment, either by a direct complaint or other evidence, until Katy Moore’s mother notified them.
  • Any sexual activity took place off workplace grounds, and Kati Moore voluntarily chose to accompany Timothy Horton to places where they had sex.
  • Kati Moore never took advantage of Starbuck’s procedures to report sexual harassment, and in fact hid the relationship from Starbucks in violation of Starbuck’s policy.

During a “20/20” investigative report, Starbuck’s issued an official statement about the case, stating, “These two employees concealed their relationship from Starbucks, which violated company policy. We are confident that the case will ultimately be resolved in finding that Starbucks is not at fault.”

But at district court the judge was unmoved by Starbuck’s arguments, stating that Kati Moore’s acquiescence to Timothy Horton’s advances might have resulted because Kati Moore was a minor and particularly susceptible to the coercion of her supervisor, and that Starbucks failed to thoroughly investigate. In the court’s view, Starbuck’s should have done much more to investigate, and wasn’t aggressive enough in handling the situation.

Clearly, more than ever, companies have to pay attention to any sign of sexual harassment, even if no official accusation is made. And if a claim or suspicion is made, it should be documented and investigated as completely as possible. Although the Starbucks case involved a minor, which the court noted may have made a difference, it seems these days courts are more apt to side with plaintiffs on these issues.

To see the “20/20” report on the Starbucks case, click here.

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