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Rhode Island Supreme Court “Clarifies” Employer’s Duty to Investigate Allegations of Employee Misconduct

The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently issued a decision that both clarified and complicated the scope of an employer’s duty to supervise its employees. In Hall v. City of Newport, 138 A.3d 814 (R.I. 2016), the court held that the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (“RIPTA”) had a duty to conduct a “full investigation” into allegations that one of its bus drivers was engaging in harassing behavior, even when those allegations (at least initially) appeared to concern a private dispute.

The dispute arose from an alleged assault. RIPTA’s driver identified the plaintiff, Joseph Hall, as his assailant, but Mr. Hall was subsequently acquitted. Nonetheless, the driver allegedly engaged in a retaliatory “pattern of harassment” against the Hall family. Over the course of several months, the Halls sent three letters to RIPTA, complaining that its employee was harassing them. However, aside from claiming that the driver had stopped his bus to take a picture of Mrs. Hall in her yard on one occasion, the letters failed to identify any specific misconduct which had purportedly taken place while the employee was on the job.

RIPTA responded after the third letter, in which Mrs. Hall asserted she was “in fear” for her family. RIPTA’s response informed Mrs. Hall that it had looked into the matter, that the information it had indicated the dispute was a private concern, and that she should contact the police if she felt threatened. RIPTA also urged Mrs. Hall to “write to us again” if she had any “specific complaints about what [the driver] may be doing while he is driving for RIPTA.” Instead of providing RIPTA with more specific complaints, the Halls filed suit against RIPTA for negligent supervision. RIPTA moved for summary judgment, which the lower court granted.

On appeal, RIPTA asserted that summary judgment was proper, claiming that the Halls’ letters were insufficient to support the imposition of any duty, since they merely “generalized the harassment and did not put RIPTA on notice of any of the specific allegations against [its employee], including that [he] used a RIPTA vehicle in a dangerous manner so as to harass the Halls.” The Supreme Court rejected the argument and reversed the lower court’s ruling, concluding that the letters were sufficient to trigger “a duty to exercise reasonable care in conducting a full investigation, which should have included obtaining more specific information from the Halls”. The Court did not address the fact that the Halls never responded to RIPTA’s request for more specific information, other than to note that questions of whether RIPTA breached its duty were best left for the jury to decide. 

The decision in Hall clarifies that an employer has a duty to conduct a “full investigation” into complaints against an employee, even when those complaints appear to concern issues that may not be work-related. However, the Court offers little guidance as to how far such an investigation must go, especially when the allegations appear to straddle the line between personal and professional. Employers who receive general or quasi-personal complaints may face difficulty steering the course between an investigation that is sufficiently “full” to satisfy Hall, and one that probes too intrusively (and perhaps impermissibly) into the private lives of its employees.

If you have any questions regarding an employers’ obligations or potential liabilities, we welcome you to contact us anytime.