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4th Circuit Holds That State Law Does Not Override Title VII Claim

Published by on February 15, 2010

In King v. McMillan, the Fourth Circuit held that the Supremacy Clause does not allow state law to override a Title VII claim brought against an individual in his official capacity.  More after the break. In 2005, Lespia King, a deputy in the sheriff’s office, sued Sheriff George McMillan in his official capacity for sexual […]

In King v. McMillan, the Fourth Circuit held that the Supremacy Clause does not allow state law to override a Title VII claim brought against an individual in his official capacity.  More after the break.

In 2005, Lespia King, a deputy in the sheriff’s office, sued Sheriff George McMillan in his official capacity for sexual harassment under Title VII, and in his individual capacity for state law battery.  King alleged that McMillan had sexual harassed her during her employment with him.  While the suit was still pending, McMillan lost a reelection to Octavia Johnson, who then replaced him as sheriff.  The district court proceeded to substitute Johnson in her official capacity as the defendant in the Title VII claim.  After a trial, the jury found in favor of King on both counts.

On appeal to the Fourth Circuit, Johnson argued that the district court erred in substituting her as a defendant in her official capacity under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 25(d)—which provides that an “action does not abate when a public officer who is a party in an official capacity dies, resigns, or otherwise ceases to hold office while the action is pending”—because under Virginia law, once she became sheriff, it was the beginning of an entirely new office.  That is, Johnson argued that each sheriff under Virginia law is a “singular entity” who is “legally independent of predecessors and successors,” and thus she could not be substituted in her official capacity and held liable for her predecessor’s conduct during his term in office. 

The court of appeals rejected Johnson’s argument on the grounds that the Supremacy Clause does not allow state law to override a Title VII claim brought against a state official in his official capacity.  The court stated that if it accepted Johnson’s argument, it would essentially allow states to draft laws in such a way as to limit the liability of state and local officials under federal law.  The court went on to say that “[r]egardless of whether Johnson reads Virginia law correctly with respect to the circumscribed authority of an individual sheriff, Virginia law cannot override Title VII employer liability.”  Nevertheless, the court clarified that Rule 25(d) does not make Johnson personally liable for any misconduct that occurred during McMillan’s term in office; it merely allows the official capacity claim to continue unabated.

The court of appeals also addressed McMillan’s and Johnson’s arguments that the district court erred in admitting the testimony of other employees who alleged they were harassed by McMillan.  The court stated that such evidence is often relevant to a hostile work environment claim, and affirmed the lower court’s ruling that the evidence was relevant as to two elements of King’s hostile work environment claim:  (1) whether the conduct was because of King’s sex; and (2) whether the conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive.  The court also affirmed the lower court’s ruling that the probative value of the evidence outweighed the risk of unfair prejudice.

Contributed by Claudia L. Guzman

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