Texas court decides who is a supervisor in sexual harassment case

A Texas appellate court held that a man who held no power to hire, fire or demote others was not a supervisor in a sexual harassment case.

In sexual harassment cases, the law treats harassment between co-workers differently than when harassment occurs between a supervisor and an employee reporting to the supervisor. In March of 2014, a Texas appellate court issued an opinion clarifying what constitutes a supervisor for the purposes of a sexual harassment claim.

Allegations of harassment by a supervisor

The plaintiff in the case worked as a phlebotomist I at a non-profit blood bank. She claimed that several times over the course of 2009 a man who held the position of phlebotomist II made unwelcomed advances and inappropriate comments toward her. She reported his actions to her co-workers, and eventually the manager of the donor center learned of the man's actions. The plaintiff did not want to get the man fired, so she and the manager agreed that the plaintiff would have her schedule set so that she would never work alone with the man. In December 2009, the plaintiff reported that the man slammed a door in her face, so he was suspended and ultimately terminated.

The plaintiff was also terminated in 2012. A phlebotomist II had told her that she had mislabeled a tube of blood, and the plaintiff disagreed. She refused to sign a "Coaching and Counseling" form documenting the incident and the training the phlebotomist gave her in conjunction with the incident. After her termination, she filed suit against the blood bank for sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment.

Determining who is a supervisor

An employer's liability for sexual harassment claims is different depending on whether the harasser is a co-worker or supervisor of the victim. If the harasser is a co-worker, the employer is only liable if the employer knew or should have known of the harassment and did not take prompt steps to remedy the situation. If the harasser is a supervisor, the victim need not show that the employer knew or should have known of the harassment.

The plaintiff alleged that the man who harassed her was a supervisor because he was a phlebotomist II. As such, she argued, the blood bank was strictly liable for his harassment. However, the trial court and the appellate court disagreed. While "supervising" staff was in the job description of a phlebotomist II and could "write up" a phlebotomist I position by filling out a "Coaching and Counseling" form, the position holds no authority to hire, fire or demote other employees.

The court stated that merely having "supervising" in a job description and not providing evidence of actual supervisory authority was not enough to make someone a supervisor for the purposes of a sexual harassment claim. The court also noted that the blood bank had taken swift remedial action when it learned of the man's behavior, so it had met its legal obligations.

Speak with an attorney

This case demonstrates how complicated and fact-specific sexual harassment cases can be. If you are experiencing sexual harassment, it is important to seek the assistance of a skilled sexual harassment lawyer. An attorney with experience handling sexual harassment cases can help you assemble the necessary evidence to present a complete picture to the court. If you have questions about sexual harassment laws, consult a seasoned sexual harassment attorney who can advise you of your options.

Keywords: employment law; sexual harassment; workplace rights