Monday, August 7, 2017

6th Circuit Upholds Summary Judgment, Finding AutoZone Store Manager Not a "Supervisor" for Purposes of Title VII Vicarious Liability

In sexual harassment cases, one of the biggest issues that are litigated is whether the person accused of engaging in sexually-harassing behavior is the plaintiff's supervisor or merely a co-worker.  The reason this distinction is important is because if the employee is a supervisor, a non-negligent employer may become vicariously liable if the agency relationship aids the victim's supervisor in his harassment.  If the employee is merely a co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions--that is, if the employer knew or should have known of the harassment yet failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.  In a more recent case out of the 6th Circuit, the Court of Appeals discussed how an AutoZone store manager, despite his title, was not a supervisor for purposes of Title VII liability.

Facts and Decision

The Store Manager Was Not Empowered by AutoZone to Take Tangible Employment Actions Against His Victims

The conduct of the store manager at issue was repulsive and both parties actually agreed on this point.  However, given the more important facts of this case, the 6th Circuit upheld summary judgment for two huge reasons:  1) the store manager was not a supervisor due to his specific duties and powers; and 2) AutoZone exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly the sexually harassing behavior, and the employees "unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise."

An employee is a supervisor for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim.  Tangible employment actions are those that "effect a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits."  The Court held that in this case, AutoZone did not employer the store manager to take any tangible employment actions against his victims because he could not fire, demote, promote, or transfer employees.  The store manager could, however, direct the victims' work, could initiate the disciplinary process and recommended demotion or promotion, conducted performance reviews, and had the ability to influence the district manager.

AutoZone Established an Affirmative Defense to Liability

The Court also concluded that even if the store manager was considered a supervisor under Title VII, AutoZone established an affirmative defense to liability.  This defense has two elements:  (1) "that the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior"; and (2) that the harassed employees "unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise."  The Court found that AutoZone met both elements.

First, AutoZone exercised reasonable care to prevent harassment and promptly fired the store manager at issue when it learned of his behavior.  AutoZone also promulgated and enforced a sexual harassment policy, that the victims acknowledged they were aware of, though claimed they never read it.  More importantly, the Court noted, AutoZone promptly corrected the store manager's sexual harassment once it learned of it by investigating it, transferring him and then terminating his employment.

The victims in this case, which is also a huge problem with people who attempt to claim sexual harassment in the workplace, also did not report the sexual harassment for several months.  6th Circuit precedent has already held that an employee who unreasonably fails to take advantage of corrective opportunities when she waits two months to report harassment.

For both of those reasons, the Court held that summary judgment was appropriate and upheld.  The case is EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc., et. al., Case No. 16-6387 (6th Cir., June 9, 2017).

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