Individual Supervisors Not Liable for Military Service Discrimination
On this Veteran's Day, employers are appropriately reminded that various laws prohibit discrimination against employees on account of military service. One of these laws is California Military & Veterans Code Section 394. This law prohibits employment discrimination against members of the armed forces because of their membership or service. Yesterday, in a case of first impression, a California court addressed whether individual supervisors may be sued and held personally liable for discrimination under Section 394. In Haligowski v. Superior Court (Pantuso), the plaintiff was a Lieutenant in the Navy and was called to active duty in Iraq during the course of his employment with defendants. After returning from a 6 month tour of duty, plaintiff was informed his employment was terminated. Unsurprisingly, plaintiff sued for discrimination. He sued not only his employer, but also his immediate supervisors. The individual supervisors asked the trial court to throw out the claims against them individually, but the trial court refused, holding that Section 394 allows for personal liability against individual supervisors. The supervisors appealed.
On appeal, the California appellate court reversed, holding that Section 394 only allows for liability against an employer, not against individual supervisors. The court reasoned that although Section 394 prohibits discrimination by any “person,” that does not necessarily mean that liability may be imposed against any “person.” The court explained that California's primary law prohibiting employment discrimination, FEHA, similarly prohibits discrimination by any person, yet it is well-established that only employers (not individual supervisors) may be held liable for discrimination under FEHA. The court held that there was no reason to treat employment discrimination under Section 394 any differently.
To be clear, the court in no way addressed the propriety of the employee's claims against the employer, much less held that the employer acted properly in terminating the employment relationship. The court simply held that the employee would have to pursue his claims only against the employer and not against his individual supervisors.