by Sara A. Rapport
For many years, supervisors and managers wondered if they could be personally liable when an employee sued his employer for discrimination. After much waiting, we have the answer! The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently endorsed the reasoning of other states, including California, and issued an emphatic “No.”
So breathe a sigh of relief, and carry on with your work. You can’t be held individually liable under either federal law—Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—or state law—the Rhode Island Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA). And you can feel comfortable making the best decision you are able to make on behalf of your employer with the confidence that your personal resources will remain yours to use for health care, college, and other needs. Your employer has your back.
Sergeant Mark Mancini was an employee of the Providence Police Department who claimed he was illegally denied a promotion to the position of lieutenant. He filed an 11-count complaint in Rhode Island federal court against both the city of Providence and then-Chief of Police Hugh Clements, Jr., alleging employment and disability discrimination, among other things. Clements sought to dismiss the count filed against him individually, on the ground that the FEPA didn’t allow him to be sued in his personal capacity.
The state and federal trial courts had taken different positions on the issue over the years, some finding for individual liability and others finding against it. Because the question arose under state law, the federal court asked the Rhode Island Supreme Court to provide a definitive answer, in a process that allows courts to send “certified questions” to the supreme court when the answers could be “determinative” of the pending case.
What does the state law say?
The FEPA language the supreme court reviewed says that it is an “unlawful employment practice . . . [f]or any person, whether or not an employer, employment agency, labor organization, or employee, to aid, abet, incite, compel, or coerce the doing of any act declared by this section to be an unlawful employment practice.” The court needed to determine what the word “person” means in this context.
Could the “person” be the same as the “employer,” or must it be a different “person”? What if, as in the case before the supreme court, only one employee was alleged to have perpetrated discrimination? Could such an employee “aid and abet” himself?
The supreme court canvassed the state law, acknowledging that courts in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York have found that individual employees could be held personally liable for unlawful employment practices. Yet, the Rhode Island Supreme Court fell in with the states of Alaska, California, and Minnesota, which have rejected individual liability.
Why decide the case this way?
The supreme court used both logic and policy to support its analysis. The goal of statutory interpretation, it noted, is to “give effect to the General Assembly’s intent.” Yet if the statute is ambiguous (and the court determined it was), then it must look to the “sense and meaning fairly deducible from the context” and the “entire statutory scheme.”
Here, the supreme court noted, Mancini alleged that only the action of Chief Clements was an unfair employment practice. Mancini claimed it was the chief’s decision that negatively affected his opportunity for promotion. To find Clements individually liable under these circumstances, however, would require that the fact finder determine Clements aided and abetted himself. In other words, to apply the statute in this way—against an employee who was the “sole perpetrator”—would mean that the person who allegedly has perpetrated the discrimination only becomes liable through the employer, which in turn only becomes liable because of the conduct of the sole perpetrator. The court declined to construe the law in a manner that was not only circular but also incompatible with “logic and conventional English usage.”
The court also called attention to the incongruity of exempting small employers (those employing four or fewer persons) from the reach of the state law, while imposing liability on a single person employed in a larger enterprise. The General Assembly couldn’t have intended such a result, the court concluded.
The supreme court had a practical concern as well. It noted that allowing for the possibility of individual liability “would have a predictably chilling effect on the discretionary management decisions of supervisory employees.” If their personal resources were at risk every time they had to make a difficult personnel decision, managers would operate under fear that they would be sued rather than in a way to advance the best interest of the employer. According to the court, a supervisor “should not have to be concerned about keeping his or her house or car, or having enough wherewithal to pay for the education of his or her children” when deciding between two candidates for promotion. The court featured the reasoning of the Supreme Court of California, which observed that forcing managers to consider the dangers of trial “would dampen the ardor of all but the most resolute, or the most irresponsible, in the unflinching discharge of their duties.”
Finally, the supreme court noted that even without suing a manager individually, an unhappy employee has recourse against the employer. Mancini could file his case against the city of Providence, but not against his former chief. Mancini v. City of Providence, 2017 R.I. LEXIS 32.
The holding in this matter—Mancini v. City of Providence—is worth reading for its legal discussion regarding the process for construing sometimes ambiguous state laws. For employers and managers, however, the message is simple: An employee can sue his employer—as an entity—under the Rhode Island antidiscrimination law but not the individual whose conduct may be at the center of the case. Therefore, the supervisor or manager charged with making the personnel decision that may have triggered the lawsuit can continue to make those decisions without the fear that her own finances are up for grabs. Carry on.
To talk with Sara about this issue further, or any education-related legal topic, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 401-270-0180.