The status of an employee as a supervisor or nonsupervisor can have a significant impact on the outcome of a discrimination, harassment or retaliation case. For example, if an employee who commits a hostile work environment is a supervisor, the employer could be deprived of valuable legal defenses like the Faragher/Ellerth affirmative defense. A recent case from the Fifth Circuit highlights the importance this distinction can make.

In Nobach v. Woodland Village Nursing Home Center, Inc, a religious discrimination case, a nursing home activities aide, sued her employer because she was terminated from her position for refusing to pray the Rosary with a patient. Kelsey Nobach was asked by a nonsupervisory co-worker to transport a patient from the dining room to the patient’s room. The co-worker informed Nobach that the resident had requested that the Rosary be read to her. Nobach told the co-worker that she could not read the Rosary to the patient because it was against her religion but invited the co-worker to do so if she wanted to. The co-worker did not respond and Nobach did not think anything more of the conversation.

When no employee read her Rosary, the patient complained to management. Management decided to terminate Nobach’s employment as a result of her refusal to read the Rosary to the patient. After being informed of the decision, Nobach, for the first time, informed management that performing the Rosary was against her religion. There being no dispute that Nobach was terminated for refusing to read the Rosary to the patient, a jury found in favor of the plaintiff on her Title VII religious discrimination claim and awarded her nearly $70,000.

On appeal, the employer challenged whether there was any evidence that the employer knew of Nobach’s religious beliefs before it discharged her. The only person Nobach ever told that praying the Rosary was against her religion was her nonsupervisory co-worker. Being unable to point to any evidence that the employer, its supervisors or management, knew at the time the discharge decision was made, that praying the Rosary was against Nobach’s religion, the Court of Appeal reversed the judgment. As noted by the Court, had Nobach told a supervisor of her beliefs before the decision was made, or if the co-worker she did advise about the conflict between her religious beliefs and her job was a supervisor, the judgment would have been affirmed.  Here the status of the employee Nobach told of her religious beliefs ended up being outcome determinative.

You can download a complete copy of Nobach v. Woodland Village Nursing Center, Inc. here [pdf].

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