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If your employee assaults a co-worker, he’d better not be multi-tasking.

Katrina R. Meade v. Johnston Memorial Hospital and Jimmy Parks, Civil Action No. 1:10-cv-00024 (W.D. Va. Sept. 02, 2010). The Plaintiff, Katrina Meade, filed this action against her former employer, Johnston Memorial Hospital (JMH), and her former supervisor, Jimmy Parks. Meade asserted employment discrimination claims under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an assault and battery claim, and claims for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. JMH filed a motion to for partial summary judgment on the assault and battery claim against it, claiming that it was not liable for the alleged actions of Parks because those actions were committed outside the scope of his employment.

Meade and Parks both worked for JMH, she as a phlebotomist and he as a registered nurse who had supervisory duties over Meade. Meade alleged that on several occasions, when both she and Parks were on duty, Parks pinched her on her bottom, stuck his tongue in her ear, and grabbed her face and held her still while he inserted his tongue in her mouth. Meade also claimed that, on each of these occasions, she told Parks that his behavior was unwanted.

Meade asserted that Parks’ unlawful conduct was committed within the scope of Parks’ employment and that JMH was vicariously liable for Parks’ conduct pursuant to the doctrine of respondeat superior. JMH disputed this claim, primarily on the basis that Meade’s complaint was insufficiently drafted to support it.

Respondeat superior is a Latin term that means “let the superior make answer.” Generally, the doctrine holds an employer liable for the employee’s tortious acts—such as assault and battery—committed within the scope of employment. If a plaintiff shows that an employment relationship exists, then the burden of proof shifts to the defendant, who must then show that its employee was acting outside the scope of his employment when he committed the tortious act.

In this case, there was no question as to whether an employment relationship existed between JMH and Parks: Meade easily proved that. The crux of the dispute was whether Parks was acting within the scope of his employment when he assaulted and battered Meade. JMH sought to resolve this dispute on a partial motion for summary judgment, and the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia took a hard-lined approach to this issue. While it stated that an employer may be held liable even if the conduct was not asserted to further the employer’s interest, it stated that the relevant inquiry was “whether the service itself, in which the tortious act was done, was within the ordinary course of the employer’s business.”

Ultimately the court granted JMH’s motion for partial summary judgment. It decided that Meade did not allege facts sufficient to prove that Parks had been engaged in the unlawful conduct in connection with the fulfillment of his job duties.

This decision narrows the potential application of respondeat superior to intra workplace cases. The court decided that a Plaintiff must allege that the harasser was performing a duty for which he or she was hired at the same time the alleged tortious conduct took place. This effectively eliminates the worst employee assault and battery cases from the cover of respondeat superior; after all, it would be decidedly difficult for a nurse to assist patients, manage medications, or supervise subordinates, while at the same time grabbing a woman’s face, holding her still, and, against her will, inserting his tongue in her mouth.

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