Employer Vicarious Liability for Employee/Agent Civil Rights Violations

Among the first challenges of any civil rights claim, like all other personal injury claims, is to identify the parties financially responsible for the harm caused by the civil rights violations. Under §1983 and Title VII civil rights claims, there may be numerous different parties involved in wrongdoing with varying levels of financial responsibility/liability.

Vicarious Liability/Respondeat Superior

The doctrine of respondeat superior is pretty straightforward on its face. The doctrine most often applies to employment situations where an employer is held responsible for the actions of employees or agents.

New Mexico has fairly strict requirements for respondeat superior liability to apply. There is a 4-part test:

  1. The employee engages in conduct he was employed to perform,
  2. The conduct occurs at a time reasonably connected to the work day,
  3. The conduct occurs reasonably close to an authorized work area, and
  4. The conduct arises, at least in part, for the benefit the employer.

These requirements are embedded in the New Mexico Uniform Jury Instructions:

“An act of an employee is within the scope of his or her employment if:

  1.  It was something fairly and naturally incidental to the employer’s business assigned to the employee, and
  2.  It was done while the employee was engaged in the employer’s business with the view of furthering the employer’s interest and did not arise entirely from some external, independent and personal motive on the part of the employee.”

Intentional Wrongdoing (Intentional Torts)

Intentional wrongdoing that leads to harm to another, referred to as intentional torts, are generally excluded from respondeat superior liability. Intentional torts are typically not committed in furtherance of the employer’s interest which is among the requirements for respondeat superior responsibility.
This would prove very problematic in §1983 and Title VII situations. A rigid adherence to the 4 requirements set forth above would shield employers of every stripe including jails, prisons, police departments, and other public and private employers any responsibility for their employee’s intentional torts.

Real or Perceived Authority of Employee Over the Victim

Fortunately, New Mexico has recognized this and allows employer liability for intentional torts in many situations where the employee was arguably acted outside the scope of employment. These exceptions are generally limited to situations where the employee by virtue of his or her employment holds real or perceived authority over the victim of the misconduct.

The situation where power is severely unbalanced between the employee and the victim is always present in jail, prison and police encounters. The same imbalance occurs in employment situations where the employer or direct supervisors have significant authority and power over the employee’s financial welfare.

In these cases, where the employee commits and intentional tort, the employer will be held financially responsible under New Mexico law for the harm caused under the theory of “aided in agency” which basically states that the employer could not engaged in the intentional tort but for the position of authority held by virtue of his or her employment.

Collins & Collins, P.C. can be reached at (505) 242-5958.