• Washington, D.C. -- Court of Appeals Clarifies Broad Scope of Liability Under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act
  • October 17, 2007
  • Law Firm: Holland & Knight LLP - McLean Office
  • In a significant decision, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals recently ruled that individual supervisors and managers can be held personally liable for sexual harassment under the D.C. Human Rights Act (DCHRA). Construing the Act’s broad definition of “employer” and a related provision that makes it unlawful to “aid or abet” a discriminatory practice, the court showed yet another reason why supervisors, managers and others acting on behalf of D.C. employers need to be especially cautious not to engage in conduct that is arguably harassing or otherwise discriminatory.

    In Purcell v. Thomas, Case No. 03-CV-1038 (D.C. 2007), Marva Thomas (Thomas) sued her former employer, as well as her former supervisor, under the DCHRA. Thomas alleged that her supervisor terminated her employment after she rebuffed his unwelcome sexual advances. Following a jury award of $165,000 against both the employer and the supervisor in his individual capacity, the supervisor appealed the lower court’s decision, asserting that an individual cannot be held personally liable under the DCHRA.

    In rejecting the supervisor’s argument, the court cited the DCHRA’s broad definition of “employer,” which includes “any person acting in the interest of such employer, directly or indirectly…” Distinguishing the DCHRA’s definition of “employer” from Title VII’s definition (which does not provide for individual liability), the court held that because the supervisor was a high-level employee, he was an appropriate defendant under the DCHRA. The court also relied upon the “aiding and abetting” provision of the DCHRA, which creates liability for any person, including a corporate entity, who assists in violating a provision of the DCHRA.

    Purcell clarifies the broad liability exposure that individuals and entities working on behalf of D.C. employers face under the DCHRA. As part of their anti-harassment training programs, D.C. employers, as well as entities performing work on behalf of D.C. employers, should make their employees, supervisors and managers aware of the personal liability that may result from violations of the DCHRA.

    The DCHRA is one of the most comprehensive employment discrimination statutes in the country, providing far broader protections than are available under federal law. It prohibits all forms of employment discrimination (including harassment) on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, familial status, family responsibilities, matriculation, political affiliation, genetic information, disability, source of income, and place of residence or business. Purcell demonstrates the importance of good equal employment opportunity compliance for D.C. businesses, their individual managers and human resources service providers.