Warn managers: They may be personally liable for discrimination

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

If you have trouble persuading managers that they cannot discriminate or harass, here’s ammunition. Tell them that if they participate in any form of discrimination or harassment, it’s their assets on the line. An employee can sue them directly, and they may have to pay damages out of their own bank accounts.

Recent case: Yvonne Hammond, who is black and over 60, worked for years as a nursing instructor at a Los Angeles County jail. She spent as much as 30 hours per week teaching nursing courses. Then a new supervisor pulled Hammond from all her teaching duties and assigned the work to younger employees. Hammond, the only black instructor, found herself with no assignments at all.

In an internal complaint, Hammond said the supervisor told her she was too old. What’s worse, the supervisor allegedly commented that Hammond couldn’t teach effectively because she spoke “Ebonics.” When Hammond complained to higher-ups, the supervisor told her, “Nobody screws me! I will screw you back.”

Hammond sued for harassment, discrimination and retaliation under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), naming the supervisor as a defendant. While a lower court dismissed her case, the California Court of Appeal sent it back for trial, specifically noting the supervisor could be held personally liable for the discriminatory acts she committed. (Hammond v. County of Los Angeles, No. B189262, Court of Appeal of California, 2008)

Final note: This case resembles, in some respects, a recent case decided by the California Supreme Court. In Jones v. The Lodge at Torrey Pines Partnership, the high court ruled that individuals aren’t personally liable under the FEHA for carrying out policies that may be retaliatory. In Hammond, the Court of Appeal ruled that managers who themselves commit discrimination or harassment may be personally liable. Citing Jones, it did throw out Hammond’s retaliation claim.

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