Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Without much analysis, the U.S. Supreme Court has imported common law agency and tort principles to resolve issues of employer vicarious liability under Title VII. The story that emerges from the recent Title VII case law is one of similarity and continuity: the main theme is that Title VII is a statutory tort, making it seem appropriate to rely on longstanding common law agency principles to determine employer responsibility for the wrongful acts of their employees.
This article contests the prevailing narrative, arguing that it significantly downplays major differences in the structure and history of tort and Title VII claims. Borrowing from tort law is misguided because vicarious liability principles were never meant to govern claims by employees against their own employers. Instead, at common law, the infamous “fellow servant rule” insulated employers from tort liability in such suits, with vicarious liability coming into play only when injured third parties sought recovery. Unlike the dual liability scheme of tort law – which holds both the employer and the offending employee liable – Title VII claims may be brought only against the employer. The enterprise liability scheme of Title VII thus bears little resemblance to the prototypical vicarious liability structure in tort law.
The Supreme Court’s approach has lost sight of historical workers’ rights struggles which led to the enactment of comprehensive workers’ compensation statutes. By recasting Title VII as the second major intervention into the employer/employee relationship, this article tells a very different story – one of contrast and change – that would free Title VII vicarious liability doctrine from the strictures of the common law.