Court Rules on Supervisor Liability in Employment Retaliation Claims

The Hawaii Supreme Court has ruled that a worker can pursue discrimination and retaliation claims against his former employer – but not against his former supervisor in an individual capacity. gavel4.jpg

In a 4-1 decision, justices determined in Lales v. Wholesale Motors Co. that supervisors can’t be held personally liable in retaliation claims. The case has been closely watched because of the issue of personal liability for workers and supervisors who weren’t defended by their employers.

However, our Boston small business lawyers know there are more than a few legal differences between Hawaii and Massachusetts.

To start, M.G.L. c.151B holds that not only are employers barred from engaging in discriminatory practices, but so too is “any person” prohibited from aiding and abetting in the violation of unlawful employment practices. The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination has held this to mean that supervisors can be held liable for employment retaliation in their individual capacity in certain circumstances. For example, in the 2003 case of Woodason v. Town of Norton school Comm., it was ruled that an individual could be held liable if he or she interfered with another person’s rights “in a manner that was in deliberate disregard of those rights.”

This standard has been applied in both employment discrimination and retaliation claims in Massachusetts. Courts in New Hampshire, Maine and California have ruled similarly.

The different outcome in the Hawaii case, however, shows why this issue may make it before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the precedent so far laid forth in Massachusetts could be set aside.

In the Lales case, the plaintiff filed a complaint against his former employer and supervisors, alleging that he had suffered from national origin discrimination (he is French) by his supervisors and co-workers while employed as a car salesman. He claims he was fired for complaining about the derogatory remarks and discrimination he endured.

The circuit court had granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. However, the intermediate court of appeals vacated that summary judgment as it pertained to the employer and one of the supervisors. That meant that the plaintiff would be allowed to pursue his claim against both his former employer and one of his former supervisors.

However, the state supreme court ultimately dismissed the claim against the former supervisor, holding that individual employees aren’t liable as employers under state law.

The dissenting justice countered in a 60-page opinion that the state’s anti-discrimination laws (similar to those in Massachusetts) hold any person liable for aiding discriminatory practices. Had it been solely up to him, he said, he would have allowed the claims against the supervisor to press forward.

The Brown Law Firm, LLC, has offices in Belmont and Boston. For a free and confidential consultation, call 617-489-0817 or contact us online.

Additional Resources:
Lales v. Wholesale Motors Co., Feb. 13, 2014, Hawaii Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Independent Contractors and Employment Considerations in Massachusetts, Nov. 20, 2013, Boston Employment Lawyer Blog

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