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Vicarious Liability and the Definition of a Supervisor

When it comes to liability in employment cases, one theory of recovery is that the company may be held responsible for the actions of its employees, but only if certain conditions are met. This is referred to as vicarious liability. This type of liability generally depends on the type of employee and the circumstances surrounding the act or omission at issue. A recent case in the 6th Circuit involving a sexual harassment claim against AutoZone dealt with this issue.

Why the employment status of the accused is important

Often in a sexual harassment case in the workplace, one of the most highly contested issues is whether the accused harasser was the victim’s supervisor or merely a co-worker. This is an important distinction because employers are most likely liable for the harassment of a supervisor if it can be established the supervisor was acting as an agent of the company at the time.

On the other hand, if the accused is only a co-worker, then the employer will typically not be held liable for the harassment unless it can be shown that the employer knew or should have known about the harassment, but failed to take prompt and appropriate remedial action.

AutoZone was not vicariously liable for store manager’s actions

The AutoZone case is significant because, despite the accused harasser’s title of “store manager,” the court found that he was not, in fact, a supervisor for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII. In this case, because the store manager did not have the authority to take any tangible employment action against the alleged victim, the court decided he was not a true supervisor. The court also found that AutoZone exercised reasonable care in its attempts to prevent and promptly correct the sexually harassing behavior.

When is an employee a supervisor for purposes of vicarious liability?

For purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII, an employee is a supervisor if he or she has the authority to take tangible employment actions against the victim in question. A tangible employment action is one that can "effect a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits."

The Court held in the AutoZone case that the store manager was not given the power by his employer to take any tangible employment actions against the victim. Specifically, he could not fire, demote, promote, or transfer any employees. As store manager, he was only allowed to direct the work of other employees, initiate disciplinary action and recommend other employment actions.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced employment law attorneys at Wrady & Michel, LLC. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!