Supervisor Liability: When a Supervisor’s Actions Expose Employers to Lawsuit
With the prevalence of claims against harassers as part of the #metoo movement, this is an excellent time for employers to review their policies and procedures as they relate to reporting harassment and handling complaints of harassment.
A common misconception by many Florida employers is that they are not responsible for the actions of their managers – especially if they were not aware of their actions. Florida (and federal) courts provide that, in certain circumstances, employers can be liable for the actions (or inactions) of their supervisors/managers, even if they were unaware of their conduct.
For example, if a department manager fires an employee due to his race or complaints about racial discrimination, the employer could be sued (and liable) for employment discrimination. Similarly, if a shift supervisor creates a hostile work environment for female employees by harassing the employees, the employer may be presumed liable unless it can prove that it took steps to prevent or promptly correct the offending behavior (including having an anti-discrimination/harassment policy in place).
When Managers Fail to Understand or Comply With the Law
Beyond employment discrimination, there are other laws affecting employee rights where supervisors need to tread carefully. These laws include the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). In many cases an employer’s failure to properly train its managers on how to comply with these laws can lead to serious legal complications down the line.
Here are some examples of supervisor actions that can lead to employer liability:
- A hiring manager asks all job applicants if they have any medical conditions that might affect their ability to work. Such questions generally violate the ADA and the Florida Civil Rights Act. Even if the employer declines to hire an applicant for reasons unrelated to the disability, the company may still face a lawsuit due to the manager’s careless questioning.
- A shift supervisor at a factory is struggling to meet a production quota and asks employees to work overtime without recording (or paying employees for) the additional hours worked. This likely violates the FLSA. All nonexempt employees have a statutory right to overtime pay that cannot be waived.
- An employee informs a manager she needs time off to attend to the serious medical condition of a child. The manager says he cannot afford to give her any time off. This may be problematic because the FMLA guarantees certain qualified employees the right to take unpaid leave to care for family members with serious medical conditions.
When Is the Supervisor Personally Liable?
Most federal and state employment laws define the “employer” subject to liability as the company or business itself. But there are circumstances where an individual manager or supervisor could be sued individually for violating an employee’s rights. While civil rights laws covering employment discrimination generally do not provide for individual liability, other statutes like the FLSA and FMLA may.
However, ascertaining individual liability can vary depending on the specific facts of a case as well as the court hearing it. For instance the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Florida, has held that there is no individual liability for supervisors in government agencies who violate FMLA. Other courts have been equally clear that managers can be personally responsible for FMLA and FLSA violations, as both statutes define “employer” more broadly than employment discrimination laws.
In addition to statutory employment laws, individual supervisors and managers may also be subject to civil lawsuits under Florida common law. Civil torts cover a wide range of misconduct, such as intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent supervision and retention, battery, and even defamation of character.
If you are an employee who has been subject to harassment by a supervisor or an employer looking to adopt policies to establish complaint procedures for supervisor harassment, contact an experienced Florida employment attorney today.