In a March 2017 decision that offers clear guidance to employers in the state, the Rhode Island Supreme Court addressed the limits of individual liability under the Fair Employment Practices Act (the Act).
A provision of the Act makes it unlawful for any person, including employers and employees, to “aid, abet, incite, compel, or coerce the doing of any act declared by this section to be an unlawful employment practice,” to “obstruct or prevent any person from complying with the provisions of this chapter,” or to “attempt directly or indirectly to commit any act declared by this section to be an unlawful employment practice.” In Mancini v. City of Providence, the State’s highest court held that this provision of the Act does not authorize imposition of individual liability on an employee of a defendant employer.
Mancini involved a sergeant with the Providence Police Department who alleged that he was illegally denied a promotion to the position of lieutenant. The lawsuit named both the Providence Police Department and Hugh Clements, Jr., the Chief of Police for the city, as defendants. The Sergeant pointed to judicial interpretations of similar statues in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York which consistently held that individual employees can be held liable for unlawful employment practices. Chief Clements, on the other hand, asked the Court to adopt the reasoning of the highest courts in Alaska, California, and Minnesota and to conclude that this provision of the Act does not contemplate individual liability.
The Court observed that the statute “is ambiguous with respect to whether or not it imposes individual liability.” It determined, however, that an interpretation of the statute that would find Chief Clements liable for aiding and abetting himself is untenable and “would contort the statutory language to an extent that would not be linguistically or jurisprudentially acceptable.” Ultimately, the Court concluded that the section at issue “does not authorize the imposition of individual liability.”
The Court weighed the public policy implications of its decision, observing that “allowing for the possibility of individual liability would have a predictably chilling effect on the discretionary management decisions of supervisory employees – since such a regime would, in all likelihood, result in supervisors frequency tending to make employment decisions based on their apprehensiveness as to the possibility of suit rather than on what they deem to be in the best interest of the employer.”
Given that prospect, the Court concluded that “a supervisor should not have to be concerned about keeping his or her house or car, or having enough wherewithal to pay for the education of his or her children when deciding, for example, between two employees who are candidates for a promotion.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling represents a bright-line standard for Rhode Island employers that protects individual employees from potential liability under the Fair Employment Practices Act. Businesses should be mindful that an array of federal and state laws still impose individual liability for unlawful employment practices, however. As aggrieved workers continue to seek broader avenues for relief from the courts, employers need to develop effective compliance strategies to navigate the ever-evolving legal landscape.
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