Mancini v. City of Providence, 2014–88 (13–92 S)

Citation155 A.3d 159
Decision Date08 March 2017
Docket NumberNo. 2014–88 (13–92 S),2014–88 (13–92 S)
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island

Mark P. Gagliardi, Esq., Alicia Mary Connor, Esq., for Plaintiff.

Kevin F. McHugh, Esq., Megan Maciasz DiSanto, Esq., Kathryn M. Sabatini, Esq., for Defendant.

Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


Justice Robinson, for the Court.

This case comes before us pursuant to a September 26, 2013 order of the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island certifying a question to this Court in accordance with Article I, Rule 6(a) of the Supreme Court Rules of Appellate Procedure.1 The certified question reads as follows:

"Does Section 28–5–7(6) of the Rhode Island Fair Employment Practices Act, R.I. Gen. Laws § 28–5–1 et seq. (FEPA), provide for the individual liability of an employee of a defendant employer and, if so, under what circumstances?"

For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we answer the certified question in the negative—G.L. 1956 § 28–5–7(6) does not provide for the individual liability of an employee of a defendant employer.

IFacts and Travel

It is not necessary for us to delve too deeply into the factual background of this case due to the fact that we are called upon to answer only a narrow question of law. It suffices to say that there is an action pending in federal court in which plaintiff, Sergeant Mark Mancini, alleges that he was illegally denied a promotion to the position of Lieutenant in the Providence Police Department. According to the Certification Order, the eleven-count complaint involves claims of employment and disability discrimination against the City of Providence and Hugh Clements, Jr., the Chief of Police of the Providence Police Department. At issue in the instant proceeding is plaintiff's count claiming that Chief Clements is liable, in his individual capacity, for the City's failure to have promoted plaintiff in alleged violation of FEPA § 28–5–7(6). In the federal action, Chief Clements moved to dismiss the count alleging that he had violated § 28–5–7(6) on the basis that, in his view, that statutory section does not provide for individual liability. The District Court subsequently certified to this Court the question with which we are presently grappling. Our role in this case is limited to answering the legal question certified to us.

IIStandard of Review

Our jurisprudence is clear that "certified questions are questions of law and are reviewed de novo by this Court." In re Tetreault, 11 A.3d 635, 639 (R.I. 2011) ; see also Western Reserve Life Assurance Co. of Ohio v. ADM Associates, LLC, 116 A.3d 794, 798 (R.I. 2015). Moreover, as we have often stated, this Court adheres to the de novo standard when reviewing issues of statutory construction. DeMarco v. Travelers Insurance Co., 26 A.3d 585, 616 (R.I. 2011) ; see also State v. LaRoche, 925 A.2d 885, 887 (R.I. 2007).

AIndividual Liability

In the instant case, we are called on to determine whether or not § 28–5–7(6) provides for individual liability. That statutory section provides as follows:

"It shall be an unlawful employment practice * * * [f]or any person, whether or not an employer, employment agency, labor organization, or employee, to aid, abet, incite, compel, or coerce the doing of any act declared by this section to be an unlawful employment practice, or to obstruct or prevent any person from complying with the provisions of this chapter or any order issued pursuant to this chapter, or to attempt directly or indirectly to commit any act declared by this section to be an unlawful employment practice[.]"

Sergeant Mancini argues before this Court that what he considers to be the plain and unambiguous language of § 28–5–7(6) provides for individual liability. He points out to the Court that Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York have anti-discrimination statutes with aiding and abetting language and that some courts applying that language have, in his words, "consistently held that individual employees of the employer may be held liable for unlawful employment practices;" he urges the Court to follow the cited judicial interpretations of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York law. See Ping Zhao v. Bay Path College, 982 F.Supp.2d 104 (D. Mass. 2013) ; Maher v. Alliance Mortgage Banking Corp., 650 F.Supp.2d 249 (E.D.N.Y. 2009) ; Farrar v. Town of Stratford, 537 F.Supp.2d 332 (D. Conn. 2008) ; Bogdahn v. Hamilton Standard Space Systems International Inc., 46 Conn.Supp. 153, 741 A.2d 1003 (Conn. Super. Ct. 1999) ; Lopez v. Commonwealth, 463 Mass. 696, 978 N.E.2d 67 (2012). He further directs this Court's attention to the fact that FEPA calls for a broad and liberal construction in order to effectuate its purpose of "safeguard[ing]" the rights of employees "to obtain and hold employment without * * * discrimination." Section 28–5–3.

Disagreeing with the statutory analysis proposed by Sergeant Mancini, Chief Clements contends that § 28–5–7(6) is ambiguous when taken in the context of the FEPA statute as a whole; and he encourages this Court to follow the reasoning of the Supreme Courts of Alaska, California, and Minnesota and hold that § 28–5–7(6) does not provide for individual liability. See Mills v. Hankla, 297 P.3d 158 (Alaska 2013) ; Reno v. Baird, 18 Cal.4th 640, 76 Cal.Rptr.2d 499, 957 P.2d 1333 (1998) ; Rasmussen v. Two Harbors Fish Co., 832 N.W.2d 790 (Minn. 2013).2

We enter upon this important exercise in legal analysis by recalling the venerable principle of statutory construction that, in construing a statute, "our ultimate goal is to give effect to the General Assembly's intent." DeMarco, 26 A.3d at 616 (internal quotation marks omitted). In furtherance of that goal, "when the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, [this Court] must interpret the statute literally and must give the words of the statute their plain and ordinary meanings." LaRoche, 925 A.2d at 887 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also DeMarco, 26 A.3d at 616. However, "[t]he plain meaning approach * * * is not the equivalent of myopic literalism, and it is entirely proper for us to look to the sense and meaning fairly deducible from the context." National Refrigeration, Inc. v. Capital Properties, Inc., 88 A.3d 1150, 1156 (R.I. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted); see Raiche v. Scott, 101 A.3d 1244, 1248 (R.I. 2014) ; see also Reed Dickerson, The Interpretation and Application of Statutes 111 n.24 (1975) ("[A] word in isolation (i.e., without context) begins with a very wide area of meaning, for it may occur in many hundreds of situations and may be used as a label for scores of objects; but by means of the practical and linguistic contexts in which it is used we can whittle it down to precisely that subarea of meaning which it must have in any specific utterance.") (internal quotation marks omitted). When confronted with an ambiguous statute, we must look to the entire statutory scheme to deduce the legislative intent; our interpretive gaze should not be restricted to a mere "isolated provision," In re Harrison, 992 A.2d 990, 994 (R.I. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted); and "under no circumstances will [we] construe a statute to reach an absurd result." National Refrigeration, Inc., 88 A.3d at 1156 (internal quotation marks omitted).

In our opinion, it is evident upon reading § 28–5–7(6) that that statutory section is ambiguous with respect to whether or not it imposes individual liability. The fact that courts within Rhode Island have come to opposite conclusions with respect to whether or not to impose individual liability under § 28–5–7(6)3 and the fact that courts around the country have come to opposing conclusions when interpreting state statutes with identical or similar language to that of § 28–5–7(6)4 bolsters our confidence in our conclusion that the statutory language at issue is indeed ambiguous.

As such, while the statute before us does make reference to liability of "any person, whether or not an * * * employee," that language should not be viewed in isolation. See In re Harrison, 992 A.2d at 994. The rest of the statutory section imposes liability for aiding and abetting employment discrimination, preventing compliance with FEPA, and/or attempting to commit an unlawful employment practice. In the instant case, the alleged unlawful employment practice involved a decision of Chief Clements which negatively affected Sergeant Mancini's ultimate chances for promotion. It was solely the act of Chief Clements which was the alleged unfair employment practice at issue in the instant case. Accordingly, for § 28–5–7(6) to constitute a rational basis for the imposition of individual liability on the Chief, the finder of fact would necessarily have to determine that he aided and abetted himself. In our judgment, such an interpretation would contort the statutory language to an extent that would not be linguistically or jurisprudentially acceptable. We recognize that at least one trial court has interpreted a similarly worded statute5 as allowing for a finding of liability on the basis of the employee at issue having aided and abetted himself. See Maher, 650 F.Supp.2d at 261. However, we are simply unable to conclude, after carefully scrutinizing the statutory language at issue, that such an interpretation is reasonable or reflective of what we perceive to have been the legislative intent. To apply the language of § 28–5–7(6) against an employee who was the sole perpetrator with respect to the alleged unlawful employment practice "would create a strange and confusing circularity where the person who has directly perpetrated the harassment only becomes liable through the employer whose liability in turn hinges on the conduct of the direct perpetrator." Rasmussen, 832 N.W.2d at 801 (internal quotation marks omitted). We decline to construe a statute to reach a result that we consider to be incompatible with logic and conventional English...

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