The Employer's Legal Resource: Supreme Court Defines "Supervisor" for Title VII Purposes

07.01.13

On June 24, the United States Supreme Court issued a much anticipated decision in Vance v. Ball State University, narrowly defining the term “supervisor” for purposes of an employer’s liability for harassment in violation of Title VII. 

In Title VII cases, an employer’s liability for workplace harassment may depend on the employment status of the harasser.  If the harassing employee is the victim’s co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions.  However, if the harassing employee is the victim’s “supervisor,” different rules apply.  If a supervisor’s harassing conduct results in a tangible employment action (i.e, the victim being fired or demoted, etc.), the employer is strictly liable for the supervisor’s harassment.  But, if no tangible employment action is taken, the employer may escape liability by proving that (1) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior and (2) that the victim unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventative or corrective opportunities that the employer provided. 

However, until now, the Supreme Court had not precisely defined the term “supervisor” or determined whether, for Title VII purposes, a supervisor is required to have the authority to hire, fire, promote, demote, transfer or discipline an employee.

In Vance, the plaintiff, an African-American woman, sued her employer, Ball State University, alleging that a fellow employee created a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII.  Vance was employed for nearly twenty years in Ball State’s dining services department.  The alleged harasser was also employed in Ball State’s dining services department.  While the parties disagreed over the precise nature and scope of the alleged harasser’s employment duties, all agreed that she did not have power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline Vance.  However, Vance argued that because the alleged harasser had authority to direct Vance’s daily activities, she was a supervisor and Ball State University was liable for the harassment. 

Disagreeing with Vance, the Supreme Court adopted a narrow definition of the term “supervisor.”  The Court ruled that an employee is a “supervisor” for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII only if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim (i.e., authority to hire, fire, promote, demote, transfer or discipline).  In doing so, the Court drew a sharp line between co-workers and supervisors.  Regardless of any authority to oversee another employee’s daily activities, the Court ruled that the authority to take tangible employment actions is the defining characteristic of a supervisor.  Because Vance’s alleged harasser was not a supervisor and because Vance could not prove negligence in controlling the workplace on the part of Ball State, the decision dismissing her racial harassment claim was affirmed.

The Supreme Court’s decision is certainly good news for employers looking for a bright line definition for supervisors.  Employers now only face automatic liability for the harassing actions of its employees if those employees have the ability to take tangible employment actions against the harassment victim.  However, employers are still not completely immune from liability for the harassing actions of co-workers or other managers.  A harassment victim can still prevail against an employer by showing that the employer was negligent in permitting the harassment to occur and, according to the Supreme Court, the jury should be instructed that the nature and degree of authority wielded by the harasser is an important factor in determining negligence.  Accordingly, it’s vital for employers to take preemptive measures to prevent harassment in the workplace and immediate corrective measures in response to harassment. 

For any questions on workplace harassment, contact our employment group.

By Ken Short, kshort@dsda.com

 

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Rebecca D. Bullard

Rebecca D. Bullard

Rebecca represents clients primarily in labor and employment
litigation and counsels clients regarding everyday employment matters. 

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