Supreme Court Clarifies When an Employee is a Supervisor Under Title VII

In a 5-4 decision that represents a major victory for employers, the U.S. Supreme Court held that an employee must have the power to take tangible employment actions against another worker in order to be considered a supervisor for vicarious liability purposes under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”).

The case, Vance v. Ball State University, concerned Maetta Vance, an African-American woman employed as a catering assistant by Ball State University. Vance alleged that another Ball State employee, Saundra Davis, had been harassing her. Specifically, it was alleged that Davis, a white woman, had been racially harassing and discriminating against Vance by intimidating her and “[giving] her a hard time at work.” Davis filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), and Ball State attempted to address the problem. Nevertheless, the intimidation and harassment continued, and Vance filed suit under Title VII in an attempt to hold the University liable for the harassment.

Ultimately, the issue of whether the university would be held liable would be determined by whether Davis was Vance’s supervisor. Under Title VII, an employer can be held vicariously liable for the creation or perpetuation of a discriminatory work environment. Specifically an employer is directly responsible if it is negligent in its prevention of harassment or discriminatory behavior. However, an employer can be held strictly liable – that is, liable under Title VII even if the employer wasn’t negligent – if the harassment is done by the victim’s supervisor.

The trial court ruled that Ball State University had responded reasonably to the complaints of harassment; as such, the school would not be found negligent.  Therefore, the school could only be held liable by way of strict liability if Davis was considered Vance’s supervisor.  Davis’ specific job responsibilities were disputed by the parties; however, all agreed that Davis did not have the power to take a tangible employment action against Vance; she did not have the authority to  “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline.”

Vance argued that the school should still be held strictly liable for Davis’ conduct, urging the court to adopt the EEOC’s definition of supervisor “which ties supervisor status to the ability to exercise significant direction over another’s daily work.” The Court rejected Vance’s argument, referring to the EEOC’s definition as “nebulous,” a “study in ambiguity,” and a standard that would “frustrate judges and confound jurors.” The Court instead adopted the definition already in use in the Seventh Circuit among other jurisdictions: one empowered to take tangible employment action against the complainant. Since Davis was not Vance’s supervisor under this definition, the employer was not liable.

The momentous ruling will serve to protect employers from being held unfairly responsible for many of their employees’ interactions. Under the EEOC’s definition, which had been previously adopted in some jurisdictions, many employees not traditionally considered to be supervisors could potentially be found to “exercise significant direction” over another’s “daily work.” Just as significantly, this ruling will save employers countless legal fees that would have undoubtedly been spent in litigating issues of whether certain employees “exercised significant direction” over others. Instead, Vance provides a clear framework for when such strict liability will apply.

Employers should be mindful that they may still be held vicariously liable for the harassment caused by any of their non-supervisory employees. However, a plaintiff in such a case would have to show that the employer was negligent in its prevention of the offending behavior. Furthermore, employers should thoroughly train those employees empowered with the ability to “take tangible employment action” in how to avoid and prevent harassment in the workplace, as harassment done by such “supervisors” will result in an employer’s strict liability under Title VII.  In sum, employers must still work to prevent harassment in the workplace; however, Vance stands for the proposition that it is less likely that employers will be unfairly held liable for behavior not within their control.

The full text of the Supreme Court decision can be found here.


Additional Information

Should you have any questions about the decision, please contact a member of Benesch’s Labor & Employment Practice Group:

Maynard (“Mike”) A. Buck at (216) 363-4694 or mbuck@beneschlaw.com

Joseph N. Gross at (216) 363-4163 or jgross@beneschlaw.com

Peter N. Kirsanow at (216) 363-4481 or pkirsanow@beneschlaw.com

Patrick O. Peters at (216) 363-4434 or ppeters@beneschlaw.com

Steven M. Moss at (216) 363-4675 or smoss@beneschlaw.com

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