An employer is strictly liable in racial or sexual harassment cases when the harasser is a supervisor, and the employee has been subjected to a tangible employment action. In coworker harassment cases, the employee must show that the employer “knew or should have known” of the harassment and failed to take prompt and effective action. Therefore, liability in such cases often depends upon whether the harasser is a “supervisor” under Title VII and/or state law.
This question was recently addressed in Merritt v. Albemarle Corp. In that case, Merritt alleged that she was sexually harassed by a Team Leader. She alleged that the Team Leader made unwelcome sexual advances toward her. When she resisted, he threatened to contact her supervisor and have her fired. She eventually consented to have sexual relations with him. He continued to threaten her job security and assigned her to work with an employee who was deemed unsafe. Although Merritt told a coworker of her situation, she never reported it to management. She eventually became distraught and walked off the job. She filed suit in Arkansas under state law. The case was removed to federal court and dismissed on a motion for summary judgment.
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that in order to be considered a supervisor under Title VII, “the alleged harasser must have had the power to take tangible employment action against the victim, such as the authority to hire, fire, promote, or reassign to significantly different duties.” In this case, the alleged harasser was a “Team Leader” with authority to assign employees to particular tasks. The Team Leader lacked the authority to take any tangible employment action and could not assign the individual to significantly different duties. The Team Leader had no power to effect “a significant change” in Merritt’s employment status. Merritt also failed to establish that assigning her to work with an unsafe coworker constituted tangible employment action. The Eighth Circuit concluded that the case should also be dismissed because there was no evidence that the employer knew or should have known of the alleged harassment.
Since a supervisor’s actions are considered those of an employer, companies should carefully consider what authority is delegated to its personnel. Leads or Team Leaders may have some oversight responsibilities but should not be delegated the authority to make significant employment decisions relating to hiring, firing, promotion or discipline. By restricting such authority, harassment liability can be minimized.