On June 24, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision limiting an employer’s liability under Title VII. In Vance v. Ball State University, the Supreme Court resolved a split in the circuit courts over the definition of a “supervisor” under a Title VII claim for workplace harassment. This decision is significant because under Title VII, if the harassing employee is a co-worker, the employer is liable only if the plaintiff can show that the employer was negligent in failing to control the working conditions. However, if the harassing employee is a supervisor and the harassment culminates in a tangible employment action such as a termination, demotion or pay cut, the employer is strictly liable. In situations where there is no tangible employment action taken against the plaintiff and the harassing employee is a supervisor, the employer can establish an affirmative defense by showing that (1) it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior and; (2) that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities that the employer provided.
In Vance, plaintiff alleged that she was the victim of a racially hostile work environment created by another employee that she alleged was her supervisor. The trial court granted the employer’s summary judgment motion finding that the alleged harasser was not a “supervisor” under Title VII because she did not have the power to fire or hire. The Supreme Court agreed with trial court holding that an employee is to be considered a supervisor when the employer has empowered that individual “to take tangible employment actions against the victim”. In reaching this decision, the Court explicitly rejected the more expansive definition of “supervisor” advocated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and adopted by several courts of appeals including the Second, Fourth and Ninth Circuits which ties the definition of supervisor to the ability to exercise significant direction over the employee’s daily work. The Court argued that the narrow definition will help to ascertain liability early on in litigation commenting that, “[a]n alleged harasser’s supervisor status will often be capable of being discerned before (or soon after) litigation commences and is likely to be resolved as a matter of law before trial.”
The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayo and Elena Kagan, argued that the majority’s approach fails to capture all employees that should qualify as supervisors and that the key consideration should be whether the employee was vested with the authority to control the conditions of the subordinate’s daily work life used to aid in his or her harassment.
In view of this decision, employers should review employees’ job descriptions to assure that they accurately reflect the individuals’ and authority to hire and fire and watch for new guidance from the EEOC that is consistent with the Court’s ruling.