Boss’s past misbehavior doesn’t automatically make employer liable for future misdeeds

Under North Carolina state law, employers can be held liable for wrongs committed by employees under some limited circumstances.

There are two requirements:

  1. The wrong (a “tort” in legal parlance) must have been committed by an employee in the scope of employment.
  2. The employer must have either expressly authorized the tort or ratified the conduct after the fact.

If that’s confusing, consider this example. Let’s assume that an employer learns that a supervisor refused to promote a subordinate because she was pregnant. If the employer doesn’t fix the problem, it has ratified the discrimination after the fact.

But what if the employer simply knows the supervisor discriminated against a pregnant employee in the past? Does that mean that anytime a subordinate is pregnant, her employer can be liable because it should have known the supervisor would discriminate against another pregnant employee? Fortunately, the answer is “no.”

Recent case: Carmen Riepe sued her employer—Newton-based lab equipment manufacturer Sarstedt—after her supervisor allegedly sexually harassed her.

Riepe hadn’t complained internally before filing her lawsuit. She claimed that because the supervisor was known to have harassed someone else in the past, Sarstedt was liable for her harassment even though she never let anyone know.

The court refused to consider the claim, concluding that Riepe couldn’t remain silent and hold her employer liable just because the supervisor had a history of harassment. (Riepe v. Sarstedt, et al., No. 5:09-CV-00104, WD NC, 2010)