Maine employers should be aware the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine has held that supervisors cannot be held individually liable under the Maine Human Rights Act (MHRA) or the Maine Whistleblower's Protection Act (MWPA). See Fuhrmann v. Staples, 2012 ME 135 (December 11, 2012). As a result, employers in Maine must take critical steps to protect themselves from discrimination and whistleblower claims.
In this case, Jamie Fuhrmann (Fuhrmann), a single mother, worked as a furniture associate at two Staples stores over a period of eight years. At some point, Fuhrmann made an internal complaint about a manager's company policy violation and the miscoding of furniture resulting in a tax fraud violation. Fuhrmann claimed that after her report, she was retaliated against and ultimately forced to resign because she was required to work nights and weekends, which conflicted with her child's daycare hours, and her request to work a part-time schedule was denied. Fuhrmann sued Staples and five individual supervisors, claiming that she was unlawfully discriminated against based on her status as a woman with children and in retaliation for reporting allegedly illegal conduct. A lower court held that Fuhrmann could not personally sue the supervisors because neither the MWPA nor the MHRA provide for individual supervisory liability.
On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the lower court's determination that there is no individual liability under the MWPA or the MHRA. The court found that while the definition of employer in each statute is ambiguous on its face, the legislative intent was to make the employer - not supervisors - responsible for preventing and correcting workplace discrimination. The court noted that the fact that the MHRA expressly incorporated vicarious liability for the employer and employer-specific remedies and penalties indicated that the MHRA intended to hold the employer and not supervisors liable.
Advice for Employers
This decision is significant as it brings the Maine state law in line with the finding of no individual liability under Title VII by all circuit courts, including the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Maine. See Fantini v. Salem State College, +557 F. 3d 22 (1st Cir. 2009). As a result of this decision, it is essential for employers to implement supervisory training on discrimination and harassment as well as immediately respond to any complaints and take prompt remedial action because it is the employer that is on the hook and will be solely responsible for unlawful acts under the MHRA or MWPA. Further, employers should make sure that they do not take a supervisor's recommendation to take adverse action against an employee at face value without undertaking a critical evaluation of the facts, as a supervisor may harbor a discriminatory bias and put the employer at risk of being sued. Finally, employers should advise all supervisors and managers that although they may not be statutorily liable, employees may still be able to bring tort claims against them for defamation, libel, tortuous interference and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Employee Management > EEO - Discrimination: Maine
Employee Management > EEO - Harassment: Maine