Contractor isn’t liable for bias against subcontractor’s worker

When it comes to employment law, construction sites can be complicated places. That’s because there’s typically a general contractor who’s responsible for the whole project, but there are also a variety of subcontractors that are brought in to work on specific pieces of it. Inevitably, there’s a lot of interaction and coordination among everyone’s employees. And when something goes wrong, it’s not always clear who’s responsible.

This became an issue recently at a major public construction project in Wisconsin. A company called JP Cullen was serving as the general contractor. One of its subcontractors was called EMI, and it hired subcontractors of its own. One of these sub-subcontractors was called UCI, and it employed a worker named Walter Love.

When Love got into a fight with an employee of a different subcontractor, JP Cullen banned him from the job site. Since UCI wasn’t working on any other projects at the time, he was essentially fired.

Love sued JP Cullen for race discrimination. Among other things, he claimed that he’d been presented with a noose and endured racial slurs on the jobsite.

But JP Cullen argued that it couldn’t be held responsible because it wasn’t Love’s employer.

The case went to a federal appeals court in Chicago, which sided with JP Cullen. It said JP Cullen wasn’t Love’s employer because it didn’t directly control his work, didn’t provide him with any training other than safety meetings, didn’t furnish his equipment, didn’t provide his wages or benefits, and wouldn’t have any relationship with him once the project was complete.

But it’s worth noting that the outcome could have been different if JP Cullen had exercised more control over Love’s work. And on many construction projects, that might be the case.