The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has held that an employer can hold supervisors and managers to higher standards of conduct than rank-and-file employees.
In Martinez v. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc., +2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 594 (6th Cir. Jan. 10, 2013), Mary Martinez (Martinez), a white supervisor, filed a reverse race discrimination claim against her former employer, Cracker Barrel, claiming she was terminated for making racist comments and was treated differently than black employees who had made the same comments. Martinez had allegedly engaged in heated conversations with four black employees regarding the Haiti earthquake, referring to the use of the Michigan Bridge Card (a state public assistance program used by several Cracker Barrel employees) as a ghetto card, and sharing personal feeling regarding teen pregnancy. Cracker Barrel terminated Martinez for violating company rules prohibiting rude and boisterous conduct as well as discriminatory and harassing behavior, but only disciplined the four black employees who participated in the conversations.
The 6th Circuit determined that Martinez could not establish that she was similarly situated to the others because as a supervisor, she was "differently situated within the management structure of the store." Martinez was involved in hiring and supervising employees and managing the retail shop in accordance with Cracker Barrel policies - Martinez acknowledged receiving training on Cracker Barrel's discrimination policies and rules requiring notification of any discriminatory actions she observed, including the use of racial terms such as ghetto. As a result, Martinez could be held to a higher and more stringent standard and she was not similarly situated to non-supervisory employees.
Advice for Employers
This case confirms that an employer has the right to hold its supervisors and managers to a higher standard of conduct than other employees without engaging in illegal discrimination. This case also highlights the importance of training supervisors and ensuring they understand their obligations under the employer's discrimination, harassment and retaliation policies. It is important for supervisors to set a good example and manage a workplace that is free of harassment and discrimination and to understand that they run the risk of exposing the employer to vicarious liability under federal law or facing individual liability under state law.
The Supreme Court is set to decide how much authority an individual must have in order to be considered a supervisor under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. See Vance v. Ball State University, +646 F.3d 461 (7th Cir. 2011), cert. granted, +2012 U.S. LEXIS 4685 (U.S. June 25, 2012) (Case No. 11-556). If the Supreme Court accepts the position that a supervisor is any individual with the authority to direct another individual's daily work, as opposed to the more narrow definition of an individual with the authority to hire, fire and discipline employees, the pool of supervisors could be substantially broadened and result in a greater number of cases in which an employer is held vicariously liable for the actions of its supervisors.
Two Employment Law Cases on the Docket as the Supreme Court Returns for a New Term
What to Watch at the Supreme Court in 2013
Employers May Avoid Vicarious Liability for a Hostile Work Environment Created by a Supervisor by Relying on Affirmative Defense
Employer Held Strictly Liable for Harassment by a Supervisor When Employee Is Forced to Resign
Employee Management > EEO - Discrimination
Employee Management > EEO - Retaliation
Employee Management > EEO - Harassment