By: Rob Harris
The Country Club of Rancho Bernardo faces a sexual harassment and wrongful termination / retaliatory discharge claim arising out of the firing of Kristen Dawson, a dining room supervisor who received emails from her boss, the subsequently hired clubhouse manager, Joe Furlow. As reported by the California Appellate Court, here is a sampling of the emails:
On December 12, 2010, Furlow sent an e-mail from “email@example.com” to Dawson’s Club e-mail address that said, “lets get you some golf lessons sometime soon, ok?!” Dawson interpreted this as Furlow offering to have a Club golf pro provide her with some lessons, so she responded on December 14, “I am definitely on board for golf lessons sometime soon!” On December 17, Furlow responded, “OK, happy to give you some anytime, lets figure out a day and maybe we could grab lunch or dinner too? Shoot me your personal e-mail too if thats ok, I don’t want this to be a work thing!” This e-mail “automatically made [Dawson] uncomfortable,” so she did not respond; instead, she discussed it with coworker Don Murders, her boyfriend, and her father.
On December 23, Furlow sent another e-mail from his yahoo.com account to Dawson’s Club address. He suggested meeting at an offsite driving range so that Club members would not distract them. Furlow added, golf “is certainly not . . . an easy game at times, but playing with friends and adding libations can enhance the experience.” Dawson was still uncomfortable, so again she did not respond.
On January 2, 2011, Furlow sent two more e-mails from his yahoo.com account to Dawson’s Club account. In the first, he asked, “Just checking to see if you are up for some golf lessons after work Tuesday?” In the second, he stated (in part), “There is a driving range one exit north of pomerado, we should go there Tuesday, ok? I am staying the night, so if you want, let’s go have some dinner and talk about dinner menu and wine list. Have you been to barrel room?” The e-mails made Dawson uncomfortable because Furlow was her “boss” and she interpreted the overnight reference as “insinuating something.”
Murders was with Dawson when she received the January 2 e-mail. Dawson wanted to write Furlow an e-mail “in a way that would not offend him, if he were to get upset, that [she] didn’t want to do dinner with him or have him teach [her] golf lessons.” Murders helped Dawson draft the following response, which she sent Furlow on January2: “I want to make our restaurant something that we are both proud of as well. . . . My only concern is that I don’t want to be in a position to give members or staff any reason to make any kind of assumptions if they saw the two of us together off premises. I know it might sound a bit paranoid, but I have seen how fast rumors can spread and unfortunately, it has happened to me in the past where members and/or staff had made false assumptions. This can occur in any business setting, and although as innocent as it may be, some people could perceive it differently which is sad that they would do such a thing. With that being said, I am not willing to take that risk. [¶] . . . I would be completely fine with a group setting to visit different restaurants, etc.”
Given the dynamic of such matters, it is not surprising that the relationship between Ms. Dawson and Mr. Furlow deteriorated, and with it, Ms. Dawson’s standing within the club.
Having received a commendation from the club’s board of directors in February noting her personal contribution to the Club’s success, she found herself jobless by June, having challenged the club’s investigation of the events. Of interesting note, the club’s investigation encompassed a series of emails ostensibly written by Ms. Dawson to Mr. Furlow from an email address that, in fact, was not one held by Ms. Dawson. Although evidence, at least circumstantial, suggested that Mr. Furlow had created the email account and authored the emails from “Ms. Dawson” to add favorable context to an otherwise problematic dynamic, the club concluded it was not possible to determinatively link Furlow to the emails.
The court’s decision traces in detail the factual underpinnings of such a claim, and presents a good primer to clubs everywhere on how investigations should be handled. At this point, procedurally, the appellate court has held that Ms. Dawson is entitled to a trial on her claims.