Limits on Personal Liability for Supervisors

December 7, 2010, 12:17 PM

Since 1998, the law in Virginia has been that supervisors cannot be held liable in their individual capacity for harassment claims filed under Title VII. Lissau v. Southern Food Serv. Inc., 159 F.3d 177 (4th Cir. 1998). Recently, a federal court in Virginia addressed the question of whether a supervisor can be held individually liable for wrongful discharge under Virginia's common law.

In this recent case, the former employee claimed that she was sexually harassed by her supervisor almost immediately upon beginning employment. She claimed that he hugged her, touched her inappropriately, and attempted to kiss and fondle her. She further claimed that he sent her love poems and once forced his way into her hotel room, whereupon he professed his love for her. When she complained, she was terminated. She filed suit against the former employer and supervisor, which included a claim for wrongful discharge against the supervisor in his individual capacity. The case was VanBuren v. Virginia Highlands Ortho. Spine Ctr. LLC, July 28, 2010, W.D. Va., No. 7:10-cv-00132.

As with Title VII harassment claims, the court held that wrongful discharge claims may proceed only against employers, not individuals. These cases are reminders that employers face unique liability risks; therefore, employers must be vigilant about enacting and enforcing policies applicable to supervisors' conduct, and regular training should be implemented to reinforce these policies. --David J. Sullivan