Employment Law News: Maine Supreme Court Rules on case
By: Rudman Winchell Attorney Matthew Cobb
Maine’s highest court ruled this week that individual supervisors cannot be held liable for employment discrimination under the Maine Human Rights Act (MHRA) or Maine’s Whistleblowers’ Protection Act (WPA).
The plaintiff had reported to her employer, Staples, what she alleged were coding violations that implicated potential violations of tax law. Around that same time, her work schedule was changed from days to evenings and weekends. The plaintiff was a mother of two children and the change in her schedule made her job more burdensome and impracticable given the difficulty of finding child care at night and on the weekends.
She filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission alleging whistleblower retaliation by Staples and four of her individual supervisors. The Commission issued a right-to-sue letter authorizing her to sue Staples and her individual supervisors. She then brought suit in Maine Superior Court. The court granted motions to dismiss claims against the individual supervisors, and claims against Staples were later also dismissed on summary judgment.
On appeal the Law Court concluded that the claims against her individual supervisors were properly dismissed because individual supervisors cannot be held liable pursuant to the MHRA or the WPA. The Court explained that “both the MHRA and the WPA seek to protect employees against discrimination by providing an avenue of recourse when they have been treated unfairly.” With that purpose in mind, the Court referred to the definitions of employer in both Acts, and concluded that both definitions were “meant to hold the principal/employer liable for acts of its agents/employees.” The Court reasoned that “employers, not employees, have the power and resources to remedy discrimination by implementing antidiscrimination policies, reinstating employees, or paying penalties.” And, with respect to remedies and penalties, the Court also noted that “the remedies and penalties expressly established in the MHRA are indicative of the Legislature’s understanding of that fact, as they are clearly designed to apply to employers, not individual supervisors.”
Accordingly, the Court found that “the MHRA’s express incorporation of vicarious liability and its employer-specific remedies do not signal any intent to hold individual supervisors liable for employment discrimination.” Thus, pursuant to either definition of “employer” in the MHRA or WPA, “there is no individual supervisor liability for employment discrimination.”
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