Main Menu

Individual Supervisor Liability Under Title VII

January 1, 1996

In the September 1994 issue of this Newsletter, we reported that the federal courts are in disagreement over whether supervisors may be held personally liable for violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other discrimination statutes. Although this issue remains unresolved, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, recently joined the debate, ruling that individual supervisors may not be held individually liable under Title VII. The court went on to find, however, that individual defendants may still be sued for unlawful discrimination in their personal capacities under New York state law. Tomka v. Seiler Corp., 66 F.3d 1295 (2d Cir. 1995).

In support of its ruling, the court reasoned that the statutory scheme and remedial provisions of Title VII, coupled with the fact that individual liability was never discussed during the legislative debates, together indicate that Congress intended to limit liability to employer entities with fifteen or more employees, and to preclude individual liability.

First, the court noted that Title VII defines "employer" as a person who has fifteen or more employees. The floor debate over Title VII shows that costs associated with defending against discrimination claims were a significant factor in the decision to implement a minimum employee requirement. In this light, the court reasoned, it is inconceivable that a Congress concerned with protecting small employers would simultaneously allow civil liability to run against individual supervisors. Moreover, the absence of any mention of a supervisor liability in the floor debates implies that Congress contemplated only employer, and not individual, liability under Title VII.

Second, successful Title VII plaintiffs generally receive equitable remedies such as reinstatement and back pay, which are most appropriately provided by employer entities rather than individual defendants. Further, when Congress, in the Civil Rights Act of 1991, added compensatory and punitive damages to the remedies available to a victim of intentional discrimination, it established a sliding scale for the maximum allowable damage award, based on the number of employees employed by the employer, and it also failed to repeal the exemption for defendants with fewer than fifteen employees. If Congress had contemplated anyone other than employer entities to be held liable for compensatory and punitive damages, it would have so stated, or would have repealed the exemption for employers with fewer than fifteen employees.

In rejecting individual supervisory liability in Tomka, the Second Circuit joined the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, which previously had reached a similar result. Miller v. Maxwell's International, 991 F.2d 583 (9th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 114 S.Ct. 1049 (1994). Nevertheless, supervisory employees in both New York and California are not without risk of personal liability for acts of discrimination. The Tomka court, while rejecting individual liability under Title VII, sustained the plaintiff's claim against an individual supervisor under the New York State Human Rights Law. The New York statute prohibits discrimination by employers, but also makes it unlawful "for any person to aid, abet, incite, compel or coerce the doing of any of the acts forbidden [by the Human Rights Law]." The corresponding state law in California, the Fair Employment and Housing Act, contains a similar provision. Accordingly, while the trend under Title VII is clearly against imposing individual supervisor liability, supervisors employed by New York or California employers continue to face the possibility of personal liability in discrimination cases.