A Florida appellate court (Alexis v. Ventura, Fla. 3d DCA June 29, 2011) has revived an employee’s tortious interference against her former supervisor. Ketlyne Alexis originally sued her former employer, Arbor E & T, for harassment and discrimination. Alexis then added Lilliam Ventura, her immediate supervisor, as a defendant to a tortious interference claim in the same lawsuit.
According to Alexis’ complaint, Ventura and other unnamed employees acted with the discriminatory purpose of undermining [Alexis’] job performance and with the intention of causing [Alexis] to be fired. Alexis also claimed that Ventura told other employees, “I am the boss and I am in charge and I’m going to make that Haitian Bitch know it.”
One of the requirements for tortious interference with an advantageous business relationship under Florida law is that the interfering party is a “third party” to the relationship between the plaintiff and his or her employer. Because managerial and supervisory employees typically are considered parties to the employment relationship between their employer and the employees they manage or supervise, as a general rule, they usually cannot be sued as third parties. Based on this logic, the trial court dismissed the claim against Ventura and dismissed Ventura as a party to the lawsuit.
Alexis appealed arguing that this logic did not apply to Ventura who was acting with a “sole ulterior purpose” detrimental to Arbor’s interest. The court agreed. The court relied on earlier cases stating that there is an exception to the general rule that a co-employee cannot be sued for tortious interference. Bottom line, the court said, “an allegation that the defendant was not acting on the employer’s behalf or was acting to its detriment satisfies the ‘third party’ requirement.”
One of the earlier cases cited by the court, O.E. Smith’s Son, Inc. v. George, Fla. 1st DCA 1989, dealt with a similar issue during the summary judgment phase of the case. The trial court found that the plaintiff, a septic tank company, failed to establish that the defendant, vice president of a construction company, was not a party to the business relationship with plaintiff and the construction company, and granted summary judgment for the defendant. The appeals court disagreed and said there was an issue of fact on whether the defendant had acted in good faith and on behalf of his employer, the construction company, when he began doing business with another septic tank company.
These cases teach employers that they will have to show that their managers’ actions were made in good faith and for the benefit of their employer to win.