California Court of Appeal Refines Definition of "Supervisor" Under FEHA
March 11, 2004


Summary

The California Court of Appeal held that a person can be a supervisor for purposes of corporate liability for harassment even though he or she is not accountable for the employee’s actions or work. (Chapman v. Enos, March 10, 2004.)

Details

April Chapman was an investigator for the Sonoma County District Attorney. Bruce Enos was a deputy district attorney assigned to Chapman’s unit. Enos engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior toward Chapman over an extended period of time. After Chapman complained, she was reassigned to a new office, and following an investigation, Enos was suspended for one week. Chapman later sued Enos and Sonoma County for sexual harassment and retaliation. Given the inappropriate nature of Enos’ behavior, because California employers are strictly liable for supervisor sexual harassment, Sonoma County’s liability hinged on whether Enos was a supervisor.

Chapman’s immediate supervisor was the chief investigator, who was located in a different office and gave virtually no direction over Chapman’s daily activities. Enos was not accountable for Chapman’s work, he had no power to promote her, and he did not complete her performance evaluations. Chapman testified that she believed that Enos was her “boss,” she “cleared” her time off with Enos, and he regularly assigned her tasks even though he did not supervise her work. The County argued that Enos was not Chapman’s supervisor because he was not ultimately accountable if she did not do her job. The trial court integrated this concept into a jury instruction and the jury returned a verdict for the County.

Chapman appealed on the basis that the jury instruction was improper. The Court of Appeal reversed and held that being accountable for an employee’s work is not a necessary component of the definition of a supervisor under the FEHA, but it is simply indicia of a supervisory role.

What this means

Whether or not a harasser is a supervisor is a crucial question in sexual harassment cases because California provides strict liability for employers when the harasser is a supervisor but not when he is a co-worker. Although the California Supreme Court recently allowed for limited damages in a supervisor harassment case, at the same time it confirmed that employers are strictly liable for supervisor harassment. (See PPS&C’s November 25, 2003 e-Update on the Department of Health Services v. Superior Court decision.) The Chapman case potentially broadens the scope of liability for supervisor harassment because of the rather loose interpretation given to “supervisor” by the Court. The case also underscores that importance of supervisor training and employee reporting policies for sexual harassment.

If you have any questions about this or any other topic, please contact Fred Plevin or Melissa Listug Klick at (619) 237-5200 at Paul, Plevin, Sullivan & Connaughton.

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