A judge has fined the University of Washington more than $720,000 for withholding information during a gender bias lawsuit. The lawsuit arose in 2009 when Isabelle Bichindaritz, a professor at the Tacoma branch campus, was denied tenure for the third time. She had been teaching at the University since 2002 in the computer-science department. The department’s tenured faculty was all male at the time and she believed she was denied tenure solely because she was female. After her final denial she requested her personnel files and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and then her lawsuit. It is at this point that the University may have caused the current problem with the court.
According to the records, the University delayed the release and production of necessary documents until after the deadline for the federal lawsuit. The University claimed that Bichindaritz did not pick up the documents on time and that it complied with all regulations. Regardless of who was really at fault, the court decided that because the documents did not appear until 2011, that the records could have changed the lawsuits outcome, and some documents were either missing or blacked out that the University would be fined. The fine was set at 50 cents per record for each day the documents were withheld. Fifty cents may seem trivial, but with 12,000 pages of public record withheld the University’s fine is substantial.
States and the federal government have enacted many laws and regulations that employers must follow. These laws and regulations are intended to protect employees, as well as employers, and to promote fairness in the marketplace. Most employers strive to comply with each and every applicable law, but sometimes questions arise. In these questionable situations, employers may conduct their own investigations, sometimes through internal auditing, and try to rectify the situation before it becomes a more serious issue. But at other times, government agencies will step in and conduct their own investigation.
Government agencies ranging from the EEOC to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to the Washington state’s Department of Labor and Industries can conduct investigations on employers. Investigations can consist of onsite inspections, document review, and interviews. Generally speaking targeted investigations are based on specific complaints. For instance in the case of the professor Bichindaritz, the EEOC conducted an investigation specifically looking into claims of gender discrimination to see if there was a pattern or practice of denying females tenure. However, most agencies that are tasked with regulating business practices will do routine inspections. In the case of a routine inspection an agency like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will do an onsite inspection to verify that all known dangers have been addressed and the premises is safe. These investigations are intended to protect employees and employers, to improve conditions, and in some cases correct violations.
Workplace investigations, whether routine or due to alleged employer or employee misconduct, can be complicated and stressful occasions. Contacting an experienced HKM employment law attorney can help.