Under federal civil rights laws, employers can be held liable for employment discrimination, harassment and retaliation claims. In most circumstances however, supervisors cannot be held individually liable for such actions. Employers with Virginia operations should take notice of a recent decision by that state's Supreme Court holding supervisors liable for wrongful discharge.
In VanBuren v. Grubb, the plaintiff was a nurse who alleged that she was terminated after she refused a doctor's unwanted sexual advances. She filed suit against the practice under Title VII, but also asserted a state law public policy wrongful discharge claim against the doctor in his individual capacity. The doctor sought to dismiss the claim stating that he could not be held individually liable for this tort claim.
In a 4-3 decision, the Virginia Supreme Court concluded that the scope of the wrongful discharge tort covers claims against supervisors. The majority noted that individual liability acts as a powerful deterrent for supervisors inclined to behave in the manner alleged in this suit. The dissent stated that only employers, not individuals can discharge an employee, and therefore the wrongful discharge tort is inapplicable to individual conduct.
State courts in the Carolinas and elsewhere that have not considered this question could look to the Virginia decision if called upon to answer similar questions.