By Ryan Taylor, Partner at Tressler LLP
In a ruling that could significantly expand the vicarious liabilities of employers, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals – which governs Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin – has held that viable lawsuits can be brought against employers for the negligent hiring, supervision, and retention of an employee who commits a crime that is not only off the employer’s premises, but also outside the scope of their employment.
The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by the mother of a pregnant Home Depot employee who was murdered by her supervisor after he repeatedly bullied her, sought to have a romantic relationship with her, threatened to fire her, and denied her even basic work breaks. Anicich v. Home Depot U.S.A., Inc., No. 16-1693 (7th Cir. Mar. 24, 2017).
The facts of the underlying case are shocking and involve the murder and subsequent rape of the Home Depot employee by her supervisor, but they nonetheless provide an extreme example of how an employer can be held liable for the off-duty acts of a supervisor.
Abuse of Supervisory Authority
In Anicich, the supervisor had demonstrated a long history of sexual harassment, abuse, and intimidation towards his victim – as well as other former female subordinates – which had been complained about and was well known by Home Depot. Although the supervisor was at one time ordered to take an anger management course, he never completed the class and was never removed as the victim’s supervisor.
Just prior to committing his atrocious crimes, the supervisor forced the victim, his female subordinate at Home Depot, to attend a wedding with him or risk being fired or having her work hours cut – thereby abusing his supervisory authority. The Seventh Circuit determined that under these circumstances a reasonable jury could find that Home Depot should have foreseen that the supervisor would turn to violence. Essentially, the employer’s obligation did not end when the employee walked off Home Depot’s premises.
Employer’s Increased Exposure to Liability
The Court’s adoption of such a broad view towards an employer’s duty to control supervisors who abuse their authority demonstrates the need for employers to not only have strong programs in place to address claims of harassment and abuse, but also to take appropriate follow-up action to ensure that such measures are effectively carried out.
Ryan Taylor is a partner at Tressler LLP in their commercial litigation practice and can be reached at email@example.com or 312-627-4032.
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