In discussing the topic of employment discrimination in the workplace, much attention is generally focused on the claims that may be brought against employers and what employers can do to avoid those claims through good employment practices. What often gets overlooked, however, is that certain federal and state laws can also impose liability against managers and employees in their individual capacities, when those persons engage in discriminatory acts. A recent case filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina illustrates this potential for liability against individual employees as well as the employer. The case is entitled Melissa Mann v. Winston Salem State University (WSSU) and Janice Smith.
Plaintiff Mann, an assistant professor employed by WSSU, alleged that the University and another professor, Smith, discriminated against her on the basis of race. Specifically, Mann asserted that Smith created a hostile work environment which included racial remarks, bullying, and other demeaning and threatening conduct. Mann further claimed that WSSU was aware of this discrimination and harassment but did not take corrective action, and then retaliated against Mann by, among other things, denying her a pay increase. Mann alleged that this conduct violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. Section 1981, and North Carolina state law.
Defendants WSSU and Smith filed a motion to dismiss Mann’s claims. The court dismissed the Title VII claim of discrimination against Smith on the grounds that individual employees cannot be held liable under that law. However, the court permitted the Title VII claims against WSSU to proceed, finding that there were fact questions as to whether Mann was subjected to racial harassment, whether WSSU was aware of such harassment, and whether WSSU retaliated against Mann for opposing that alleged conduct. Significantly, the court also permitted the claims against Defendant Smith to proceed under Section 1981. The court recognized that individual employees can be held liable for their intentional acts of race discrimination and harassment under that law, and that there were fact questions regarding whether Smith engaged in such conduct towards Mann. In addition, the court granted leave for Mann to amend her complaint in order to assert an additional claim against Smith for race discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, which prohibits discrimination by officials employed by state governmental units (such as WSSU). Lastly, the court permitted Mann’s claim for punitive damages to proceed against Smith under North Carolina state law, which permits such damages where a person has committed egregiously wrongful acts.
Of course, employers act through their managers and employees, and can generally be held liable under federal and state laws for the employment decisions and actions of those agents. The Mann case presents a good example of how the alleged discriminatory acts of an employee can create individual liability as well. In addition to claims under federal law such as Section 1981, individual managers can also be sued for various state law employment claims such as assault and battery, defamation, and infliction of emotional distress. When training their managers regarding policies and anti-discrimination laws, employers should therefore advise managers that failure to comply with these laws can result in significant personal liability.