August 24, 2009
Shrinking Employer Liability Under Title VII
The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Huston v. The Procter & Gamble Paper Products Corporation clarified which employees qualify as “management level” in the context of Title VII hostile work environment claims. A person responsible for the mere oversight of an employee's assignment or task may not be considered "management."
Title VII makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin …”
An employee may establish that an employer violated Titled VII by demonstrating that s/he was subjected to harassment, which resulted in a hostile work environment. For example: a plaintiff establishes an employer violated Title VII by proving that sexual harassment created a hostile work environment.
An employer’s liability for a hostile work environment is contingent upon whether the harasser is the employee’s supervisor or co-worker. An employer is not strictly liable for harassment committed by mere co-worker. An employer is only liable for harassment by a co-worker if the employer fails to provide its employees with reasonable reporting procedures, or knew or should have known of the harassment and fails to take prompt and appropriate remedial action.
The Third Circuit has previously expressed that an employer knew or should have known about workplace sexual harassment if “management level” employees had actual or constructive knowledge about the existence of the hostile work environment being created by the harassment. The court also held that “management level” employees have constructive notice of a hostile work environment when provided with enough information to raise a probability of sexual harassment in the mind of a reasonable employer. Consequently, the more broadly “management level” is defined, the greater the employer’s potential liability.
In this decision the Third Circuit clarified that a co-worker with mere supervisory authority over the performance of another employees work assignments, is not defined as “management level”. The court was unwilling to hold the employers responsible for actions of employees designated to oversee a co-worker’s specific task.
Rather, the court clarified that a co-worker must have the authority to regulate a fellow employee’s work environment to qualify as “management level” in the context of Title VII hostile work environment claims, i.e knowledge of the harassment must reach an employee in the employer’s governing body . This approach is consistent with the negligence standard applied by the courts to determine the employer liability in cases of non-supervisory co-worker sexual harassment.
This decision can be placed in the win column for employers.
Tiffanie C. Benfer is an associate of Hill Wallack LLP in the Yardley office where she is a member of the Litigation Division and the Employment & Labor Law Practice Group. Ms. Benfer concentrates her practice in Employment Discrimination and Civil Rights & Constitutional Litigation.