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Maine Supreme Judicial Court holds that supervisors can’t be held personally liable for discrimination

Yesterday, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court held, in a 4-3 decision, that the Maine Human Rights Act (MHRA) does not permit victims of employment discrimination to sue the supervisors who discriminated against them. Instead, the Court held that, under the MHRA, employees may only sue their employer for discrimination when their supervisors discriminate against them.

In the Court’s majority opinion, written by Justice Silver, it held that the MHRA was ambiguous and did not clearly indicate whether the Maine Legislature intended for victims of employment discrimination to be able to sue the supervisors who discriminated against them. The Maine Human Rights Commission (MHRC), the state agency that enforces the MHRA, backed the plaintiff in this case and argued that the MHRA allows victims of employment discrimination to sue the supervisors who discriminated against them, instead of just the employers who employed them. The Court found that the MHRA “could reasonably be interpreted as…imposing individual supervisor liability.” It also recognized that “when statutory terms are ambiguous, [courts] defer to the agency’s interpretation of a statute that is within its area of expertise unless it is unreasonable…” Despite the Court’s finding that the MHRC’s interpretation of the statute was reasonable, the Court did not defer to it. Instead, the Court held that if the Maine Legislature had intended to create individual supervisor liability, it would have more clearly indicated this intent in the statute.

The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Levy, found that the MHRA unambiguously provides that individual supervisors may be held liable if they discriminate against employees. According to Justice Levy, under the express terms of the MHRA, “[a]n employer includes ‘any person acting in the interest of any employer, directly or indirectly.’ Thus, when individual supervisors act in the interest of their employers, they, too, are ‘employers’” under the MHRA. Justice Levy also found that the majority’s opinion contravened the purpose of the MHRA. He reasoned that, obviously, one of the purposes of the MHRA is to prevent discrimination and “by subjecting individual supervisors to a potential lawsuit for their unlawful employment discrimination, the [MHRC's] construction [of the MHRA] directly discourages individual supervisors from discriminating by creating a disincentive.”

It is important to note that this Court decision does not change the fact that employers may be held liable for the discriminatory actions of their supervisors. If your supervisor discriminates against you, the MHRA permits you to sue your employer because it is legally responsible for your supervisor’s discrimination. However, when you sue your employer for discrimination, under this new decision, you may not also sue your supervisor.