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Employer Potentially Liable for Harassment of Supervisor by Her Subordinates

    Client Alerts
  • August 03, 2015
Employers are well aware of their potential liability for workplace harassment claims involving co-workers or third parties. They also understand their heightened legal responsibility when the alleged harasser is the complaining party’s supervisor. What happens when a supervisor complains about harassment by employees who report to her? Can an employer be held liable when the supervisor is unable to stop this behavior?

According to a new decision from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, employers can be legally responsible for harassment of a supervisor in some circumstances. In Stewart v. Rise, Inc., the plaintiff was a lower-level, African-American female supervisor. She claimed that several male, Somali-born employees engaged in a pattern of abusive treatment and harassment directed against her based on her race, gender and national origin. The plaintiff alleged that she reported this behavior to her direct supervisor on multiple occasions, but that he refused to intervene.

The Eighth Circuit partially reversed a grant of summary judgment for the employer. The court stated that in most circumstances, supervisors harassed by employees who report to them are responsible for dealing with the harassment. This could occur through discipline or discharge, or through the supervisor using the company’s policies, procedures and resources to address the issues. In this case, however, the court concluded that the plaintiff had limited authority, and may not have been in a position to effectively deal with the situation on her own. Her allegations about reporting the behavior to her supervisor and his failure to address the issues result in a factual issue for a jury to determine.

The Eighth Circuit did express its belief that a jury may have a difficult time concluding that the plaintiff adequately presented her concerns up the chain of command, or otherwise lacked the ability to end the harassment. However, nothing under Title VII automatically shields an employer from liability for discrimination and harassment claims just because they involve claims by a supervisor against employees who report to her.