Harassment on the Worksite; Can the General Contractor be Held Liable?

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recently held that a laborer hired by a subcontractor cannot sue the construction project’s general contractor for same-sex harassment. In the lawsuit, Matthew Allen alleged that an unidentified man from another company made sexual advances towards him. After reporting the incident to the general contractor, D.A. Foster Company, Inc., the man who allegedly made the advances was ejected from the worksite. Allen alleged, however, that he was continually harassed by coworkers who had heard about the incident. Allen filed suit against the general contractor, and Barnes Excavating, the subcontractor, alleging, among other counts, discrimination, hostile work environment, retaliation, and retaliatory termination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The court held that claims against an employer under Title VII may only be brought by an employee, not an independent contractor, against an employer. To determine whether the claimant is an employee or independent contractor, courts weigh several factors of the conventional master-servant relationship. While no one factor is determinative, several factors are considered, including: the workers skill required; who provides the tools required; location of the work; duration of the relationship; the hiring party’s right to assign additional projects to the hired party; the extent of the hired party’s discretion over working time and hours; the method of payment; and whether the work is part of the regular business activities of the hiring party.

In the case at hand, D.A. Foster was the general contractor who subcontracted excavating work to Barnes. Barnes directly hired Allen as a laborer and assigned Allen to work on the project supervised by D.A. Foster. Although D.A. Foster provided some guidance and training for the project, and the company does regularly perform work in this industry, the level of control over Allen did not rise to the extent necessary to establish an employee-employer relationship. The court held that, with respect to D.A. Foster, Allen was an independent contractor. Most tools were provided to Allen by Barnes Excavating, not Foster. Allen worked under the direct supervision of and was paid by Barnes. The court found that Allen could not reasonably believe that he was an employee of D.A. Foster. Thus, the court granted summary judgment in favor of D.A. Foster.

While in the case at hand the general contractor was not subject to liability on the claim, employers still need to be weary of the current trend to try towards expanding the definition of who is the “employer.” Particular attention should continue to be paid to the IRS independent contractor test and, in particular, the most recent movement of the NLRB to redefine joint-employer status. The consequences of misclassifying an employee as an independent contractor can be significant. The case should also serve as a reminder to all contractors that they need to take steps to make sure that their jobsites are free from any kind of harassment.

This article is authored by attorney Lori L. Buntman and is intended for educational purposes and to give you general information and a general understanding of the law only, not to provide specific legal advice.  Any particular questions should be directed to your legal counsel or, if you do not have one, please feel free to contact us.

 

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