California Supreme Court Takes on Harassment v. Discrimination

Roby sued McKesson for disability-based harassment and discrimination. The jury awarded over $3million in actual and $15million in punitive damages, including an award of damages for harassment against an individual defendant. The verdict, though, was a mess and was reduced because of overlapping, duplicative damages awards. In addition, there was an issue of whether the individual could be sued for harassment because much of the alleged conduct was in connection with personnel decisions.

One of the issues the Supreme Court addressed is whether a manager / supervisor's conduct during "personnel actions" is evidence not only of the discriminatory motive, but also harassment. The court explained the difference as follows: "discrimination refers to bias in the exercise of official actions on behalf of the employer, and harassment refers to bias that is expressed or communicated through interpersonal relations in the workplace. " * * *
"[H]arassment is generally concerned with the message conveyed to an employee, and therefore with the social environment of the workplace, whereas discrimination is concerned with explicit changes in the terms or conditions of employment"

Applying this standard, the court upheld Roby's harassment claim:

Roby's discrimination claim sought compensation for official employment actions that were motivated by improper bias. These discriminatory actions included not only the termination itself but also official employment actions that preceded the termination, such as the progressive disciplinary warnings and the decision to assign Roby to answer the office telephones during office parties. Roby's harassment claim, by contrast, sought compensation for hostile social interactions in the workplace that affected the workplace environment because of the offensive message they conveyed to Roby. These harassing actions included Schoener's demeaning comments to Roby about her body odor n10 and arm sores, Schoener's refusal to respond [*40] to Roby's greetings, Schoener's demeaning facial expressions and gestures toward Roby, and Schoener's disparate treatment of Roby in handing out small gifts. None of these events can fairly be characterized as an official employment action. None involved Schoener's exercising the authority that McKesson had delegated to her so as to cause McKesson, in its corporate capacity, to take some action with respect to Roby. Rather, these were events that were unrelated to Schoener's managerial role,
engaged in for her own purposes.

Does this clear things up? There was a bright line between personnel actions and harassing conduct before this case, supported by 15 years of authority. Does this mean that personnel actions now are evidence of harassment when the manager carrying them out is unpleasant? We will see how lower courts treat evidence of harassment after this decision.

Separately - the Court also analyzed punitive damages in employment law cases. After detailed analysis, the Court decided that a one-to-one ratio between actual and punitive damages was the constitutional limit. The Court based its conclusion on its conclusion that as a corporation, McKesson's conduct was not particularly "reprehensible." The Court also based its decision on the high damages award, warranting a lower ratio because of the actual damages' deterrence of similar conduct.

The Court also explained what a "managing agent" is for punitive damages purposes, clarifying prior rulings:

In this case, the Court of Appeal concluded that the jury could reasonably have found supervisor Schoener to be a "managing agent" of employer McKesson. On that basis, the court concluded that the jury's award of punitive damages could be justified based on Schoener's actions alone, regardless of whether more senior managers at McKesson were informed of Schoener's actions. We disagree.

At the time of Roby's termination, McKesson had over 20,000 employees; Schoener
worked at a local distribution center supervising four of them. When we spoke in White about persons having "discretionary authority over . . . corporate policy"
(White, supra, 21 Cal.4th at p. 577), we were referring to formal policies that affect a substantial portion of the company and that are the type likely to come to the attention of corporate leadership. It is this sort of broad authority that justifies punishing an entire company for an otherwise isolated act of oppression, {Slip Opn. Page 32} fraud, or malice. The record here does not support the conclusion that Schoener exercised that sort of broad authority or that she was a "managing agent" for purposes of awarding punitive damages under Civil Code section 3294, subdivision (b). Therefore, in assessing the reprehensibility of employer McKesson's conduct, we must look to what McKesson's more senior managers knew and did.

The case is Roby v. McKesson Corp. and the opinion is here.