EEOC Year-End Countdown

Sixth Circuit Shuts Down EEOC’s Appeal In Sex Harassment Suit

Posted in Motions for Summary Judgment

armor-158430__340By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by the EEOC, the Sixth Circuit affirmed a U.S. District Court’s grant of an employer’s motion for summary judgment after finding that the harassing employee was not a supervisor under Title VII, and therefore the company was not vicariously liable for his actions. It is a decidedly pro-employer ruling.

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In EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc., No. 16-6387 (6th Cir. June 9, 2017), the EEOC alleged that AutoZone was liable under Title VII for a store manager’s alleged sexual harassment of three female employees.  After the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, the EEOC appealed.  The Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment, finding that because the store manager did not take any tangible employment action against his co-workers and had no authority to do so, he was not a supervisor under Title VII, and thus AutoZone was not vicariously liable for the conduct alleged.  The Sixth Circuit further held that even if the store manager was found to be a supervisor under Title VII, AutoZone established an affirmative defense to liability.

For employers facing EEOC lawsuits alleging that they are vicariously liable for sexual harassment claims brought against employees with managerial job titles, yet who have limited authority to take tangible employment actions, this ruling can be used as a blueprint to attack such claims in motions for summary judgment.

Case Background

In May 2012, AutoZone transferred a store manager to its Cordova, Tennessee location.  Id. at 2.  The store manager could hire new hourly employees and write up employees at the store for misbehaving, but could not fire, demote, promote, or transfer employees.  Authority over firing, promoting, and transferring rested with the district manager for the store.

After an employee claimed that the store manager made lewd comments to her, AutoZone internally investigated the allegations.  As part of AutoZone’s internal investigation, two other female employees who worked at the Cordova location confirmed that the store manager made lewd sexual comments.  Despite his denial of the allegations, AutoZone ultimately transferred and terminated the store manager.  Thereafter, the EEOC brought a lawsuit alleging that AutoZone subjected the three female employees to sexual harassment.  Following discovery, AutoZone moved for summary judgment.  The District Court granted AutoZone’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the store manager was not a supervisor under Title VII and therefore AutoZone was not vicariously liable for his actions.  The EEOC appealed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment to the Sixth Circuit.

The Sixth Circuit’s Decision

The Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s grant of AutoZone’s motion for summary judgment.  First, the Sixth Circuit instructed that under Title VII, if the harassing employee is the victim’s co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions, or in other words, if the employer knew or should have known of the harassment yet failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.  Id. at 4 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).  However, if the harasser is the victim’s supervisor, a non-negligent employer may become vicariously liable if the agency relationship aids the victim’s supervisor in his harassment.  Id.  The Sixth Circuit further explained that an employee is a “supervisor” for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim.  Id.

Applied here, the Sixth Circuit found that AutoZone did not empower the store manager to take any tangible employment action against his victims since he could not fire, demote, promote, or transfer any employees.  Id. at 5.  Further, the Sixth Circuit held that the store manager’s ability to direct the victims’ work at the store and his title as store manager did not make him the victims’ supervisor for purposes of Title VII.  The Sixth Circuit also noted that while the store manager could initiate the disciplinary process and recommend demotion or promotion, his recommendations were not binding, and his ability to influence the district manager did not suffice to turn him into his victims’ supervisor.  Id. at 5-7.  Finally, the Sixth Circuit held that the store manager’s ability to hire other hourly employees was irrelevant since he did not hire the employees he harassed.  Id. at 7.

After finding that the store manager was not a supervisor for purposes of Title VII, the Sixth Circuit further held that even if he was found to be a supervisor, AutoZone established an affirmative defense to liability.  The defense has two elements: (1) that the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any sexually harassing behavior; and (2) that the harassed employees unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise.  Id.  The Sixth Circuit held that AutoZone met the first element by utilizing an appropriate anti-harassment policy to prevent harassment, and by transferring and later terminating the store manager promptly after it investigated the allegations.  Regarding the second element, the Sixth Circuit held that AutoZone satisfied this prong since the victims failed to report the store manager’s behavior for several months.  The Sixth Circuit thus held that AutoZone established an affirmative defense to liability.  Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s grant of AutoZone’s motion for summary judgment.  Id. at 10.

Implications For Employers

Employers often utilize employees that may be “managers” in title, yet do not have the authority to take tangible employment actions.  When those employers are sued by the EEOC for the conduct of managers with limited authority, this ruling can be used to argue that such employees are not “supervisors” under Title VII, and therefore the employer is not vicariously liable for their actions.  Nonetheless, given the EEOC’s aggressiveness in attempting to use the theory of vicarious liability to hold “deep-pockets” large-scale employers liable for the conduct of employees, employers would be prudent to invest in harassment-prevention training to minimize the likelihood of such behavior occurring.  But in the event that such incidents of harassment arise and lead to EEOC lawsuits, employers can use this decision to tailor their arguments to focus on the authority of the harasser, as opposed to his or her job title.

Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.