Employment Law Journal

Employees Can Sue Their Managers and Other Co-Employees Individually Under State Law

By Bruce D. Voss

Hawaii employees can sue their managers and other co-employees individually under Hawaii state discrimination law, the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals has ruled.

Under federal law, Title VII discrimination liability only extends to employers and not to employees in their individual capacities. Hawaii employers contend that Hawaii’s state discrimination law, Chapter 378, should be similarly interpreted as only subjecting employers, and not individual employees, to liability for discriminatory acts. Plaintiff lawyers-who believe suing individual employees gives them a tactical advantage-have long claimed that the plain language of state law permits individual liability. Federal courts attempting to interpret state law have reached differing conclusions.

The issue was presented squarely to Hawaii state appellate courts for the first time in Lales v.Wholesale Motors Co. Car salesman Gerard Lales sued not only his employer, Wholesale Motors, but also two of his managers, claiming they made derogatory comments about his French national origin and then fired him in retaliation for complaining about the alleged discrimination.

The Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals ruled that Lales can sue his former managers individually. The Court held: “A plain reading of the statutory provisions supports the conclusion that an individual employee, who is an agent of an employer, can be held individually liable as an ’employer'”

Although Lales was a memorandum opinion by the ICA, and therefore technically not binding precedent, the decision makes clear how the ICA would rule if faced with the issue again. The opinion likely will encourage plaintiff lawyers to add more individual managers as co-defendants in wrongful termination/discrimination lawsuits.

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