Legal Updates & Alerts

Employer's Liability to Excluding Third Parties from Work Premises

March 11, 2008
In a case involving the University of Oregon, the Oregon Court of Appeals made a favorable ruling for employers who exclude outside persons from their work premises in response to complaints by employees. House v. Hicks, 2008 WL 588590 (2008). It has long been the rule that employers can be liable to employees for allowing a hostile work environment when they fail to take reasonable action to curtail harassing conduct by third parties, such as customers. House v. Hicks tested what can happen to employers when they try to fulfill their obligation to employees by taking action against third parties and are then sued by those third parties.

In House v. Hicks, the plaintiff, Mr. House, was a non-student who met a married University of Oregon instructor, Hastie, through a "women seeking men" advertisement. When Hastie tried to cut off contact with House, he continued to send her unwanted messages, e-cards and gifts. He also invaded her privacy by checking her email and work schedule. He even enrolled in Hastie's class, even though he was not a student of the University. When Hastie reported the problem to the University, House was excluded from campus. He then filed a lawsuit alleging that his exclusion from campus constituted extreme or outrageous conduct, subjecting the University to liability for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that the University was not liable for responding to complaints of harassment by excluding the offender from the work premises. However, the Court did not hold that employers are never liable for excluding third parties from their premises. Oregon law looks at the totality of circumstances in each case, including factors such as the relationship between the plaintiff and the employer, special sensitivities of the plaintiff or other factors. Nevertheless, it will be a rare case when a third party will have a claim against an employer for exclusion from work premises, especially in the case of a private employer whose premises are not generally open to the public.

House v. Hicks is relevant to both public and private employers and when an employee complains about third party harassment, the employer must respond in a way that protects against claims from both the employee and the offender. Of course, all employers must balance their need to take action with the risk of offending customers or other third parties.