Ordinarily, a subordinate would be nuts to harass a supervisor, particularly if the supervisor has the authority to affect the subordinate’s terms and conditions of employment. There are several such cases. For example, in the most recent of these cases, Lyles v. District of Columbia [17 F.Supp. 3d 59) decided on 8/27/14 by the District Court of the District of Columbia, Evelyn Lyles complained that a subordinate had sexually harassed her and the standard used by the court was as follows:
An employer may be held liable for the harassment of a supervisor by a subordinate if the employer knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to implement prompt and appropriate action; but an employer will not be liable for the sexual harassment of a supervisor by a subordinate where the supervisor-plaintiff had the ability to stop the harassment and failed to do so.
As it turns out, Lyles did have that authority and failed to use it. However, this (and others like it) is a precursor to the case I want to talk about. That case is Knudson v. Board of Supervisors of the University of Louisiana System, decided on 4/16/15 by District Court Judge Joseph C. Wilkerson of the Eastern District of Louisiana. In this case, the charge was racial harassment by a subordinate of a supervisor who did not have direct authority to affect the alleged harasser’s terms and conditions of employment. Or as described by Judge Wilkerson:
There is evidence in the instant case that Knudsen lacked authority to discipline Jones, who was a classified Civil Service employee. He could only recommend to his immediate supervisor, the Director of the University Police Department, that disciplinary action be taken against Jones, and the Director himself could only recommend such action to his own supervisor, Dr. Yates, or the director of human resources.
It turns out that Knudson made complaints in writing to his supervisors, the human resources department, and the university’s EEOC officer and nothing was done about until the harasser (Angela Jones) was terminated at a much later point. Bottom Line – Knudson defeated summary judgment on the racial harassment claim
What makes this case interesting other than the obvious (a black female subordinate harassing a white supervisor) is that it’s the first ever case with such facts in which the supervisor lacked such authority. What makes this issue important is that there are situations out there where subordinates mistreat supervisors, and in such situations, the employer needs to train the supervisor to take action regardless of whether he/she has the authority to affect terms and conditions. This is obviously more important, I think, where that authority is lacking.
By Art Gutman, Ph.D., Professor, Florida Institute of Technology