The First Circuit recently ruled that Title VII, which prohibits covered employers from discriminating against employees based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, does not provide a cause of action against individuals. Although Title VII’s definition of “employer” includes “any agent” of an employer, in Fantini v. Salem State College, the First Circuit declared that this language does not create a separate cause of action against an individual employee, but rather imputes a supervisor’s action to his or her employer.

Marianne Fantini worked for Salem State College as the director of general accounting. While Fantini was on a leave of absence in 2001, Salem State hired an independent accounting firm to perform an audit, which revealed numerous accounting errors made by Fantini. Consequently, Salem State terminated Fantini’s employment for poor performance.

Fantini brought suit against Salem State in District Court asserting claims under Title VII and Chapter 151B for sex discrimination and retaliation. She also brought Title VII claims against the president of the college and a number of supervisors and human resources professionals there. The District Court dismissed the Title VII claims brought against the individuals and held that an individual employee is not liable under the statute. It also ruled that Fantini failed to exhaust her administrative remedies before commencing a civil action for employment discrimination, stating that although Fantini had made one brief mention of gender discrimination in her MCAD complaint, the claim was not addressed by either party or by the administrative agency.

The First Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling that Title VII does not provide a cause of action against individuals, noting Title VII imposes liability only on employers with fifteen or more employees, in part because the Legislature intended to spare small employers the expense of defending Title VII discrimination lawsuits. The Court opined that in light of this law’s original intent, it was “inconceivable” that the Legislature ever envisioned subjecting individuals to Title VII liability. Furthermore, the Court noted that when Congress amended Title VII in 1991 to expand the remedies available, it tied the size of any compensatory and punitive damage awards to the employer’s size and did not provide an amount for cases in which an individual is liable. The First Circuit, however, vacated the District Court’s finding that Fantini had not complied with Title VII in terms of exhausting her administrative remedies before commencing a civil action. The Court asserted that “an administrative charge is not a blueprint for the litigation to follow” and that Fantini had satisfied the exhaustion requirement when she briefly mentioned the gender discrimination claim in her MCAD complaint and described the incidents upon which the claim was based.

This case is significant for employers because it clearly limits liability under Title VII exclusively to employers, and safeguards individuals against personal liability claims. It also serves as a reminder that employers must carefully evaluate each complaint filed with the MCAD or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) since they may one day need to defend against a claim which has “grown out of” the original facts and allegations of a complaint, no matter how cursory the initial assertion of the claim may have been.