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June 2013

U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Who Constitutes "Supervisor" for Vicarious Liability Under Title VII

On June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Vance v. Ball State University that for purposes of employer liability under Title VII, a “supervisor” is only a “supervisor” if he or she is empowered by the employer to take “tangible employment actions” against the employee.

In the case before the Court, Maetta Vance, an African-American woman, sued her employer, Ball State University (BSU) alleging that a fellow employee, Saundra Davis, created a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. Vance, a part-time catering assistant for BSU, worked with Davis, a Caucasian woman employed as a “catering specialist.” Davis did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline Vance. Despite this, Vance alleged that Davis was her “supervisor” and that BSU was liable for Davis’ creation of a racially hostile work environment.

Under existing law, an employer’s liability for harassment may depend on the status of the harasser. If the harassing employee is the victim’s co-worker, then the employer is generally liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions or failed to take action after learning of the harassment. In cases in which the harasser is a supervisor, the employer is strictly liable for the supervisor’s conduct without consideration as to whether there was negligence in controlling working conditions or if the employer failed to take action upon learning of the harassment. As many employers that have not established clear lines of supervisory authority have unfortunately learned, aggrieved employees will fight very hard to establish that an accused harasser is a “supervisor” so that strict liability attaches in their case.

In Vance’s attempt to hold BSU strictly liable for Davis’ alleged actions, she argued to the Court that an expansive understanding of the concept of a “supervisor” was supported by the meaning of the word in general usage and in other legal contexts. The Court found this argument incorrect and misguided. While it conceded that the term “supervisor” lacks a sufficiently specific meaning, the Court turned to the “specific facts” of Vance’s and Davis’ working relationship. The Court ruled there was no evidence that Davis directed Vance’s day-to-day activities or that she could take tangible employment action against Vance. Instead, BSU had offered evidence that two other individuals assigned Vance’s daily tasks and set Vance’s work schedule.

The Court’s ruling in Vance provides authority for employers to assert that they are only strictly liable for actions of supervisors who have the authority to take “tangible employment action” against employees. In light of this ruling, aggrieved employees cannot claim that harassing behavior by anyone above their level equates to strict employer liability without alleging more. The Court’s decision should encourage employers to communicate and set forth their supervisory structures and to continue to ensure compliance with their own anti-harassment policies.

To read the Court’s opinion, click here.

Employment Law

Employment Law