Ruling defines ‘supervisor,’ puts limits on employer liability in harassment cases
By Katie Loehrke, editor, J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently considered the definition of “supervisor” to determine when an employer is liable for workplace harassment. In this case, Vance v. Ball State University, the main question was whether supervisor liability applies to harassment by any employee with authority to direct and oversee the daily work of his or her victim, or whether it is limited to those harassers who have the power to take tangible employment actions (which might include hiring, firing, demotion, promotion, or discipline) over a victim.
Why it matters
This distinction is important since, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the status of the harasser invokes different levels of liability for the employer. If the employee is the victim’s coworker (but not the individual’s supervisor), the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions. If the harasser is considered a supervisor, however, the employer is automatically liable if the harassment results in a tangible employment action.
If the harasser is a supervisor but no tangible action is taken, the employer must still show that it took reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassment. To be protected from liability, the employer would also need to show that the complaining employee failed to take advantage of preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer. This action is referred to as the Faragher-Ellerth compound defense, named for two Supreme Court cases on which it is based.
In the Vance case, an employee sued her employer, alleging that a fellow employee created a racially hostile work environment. Both the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that the employer was not liable because the offending employee was not a supervisor. The employee appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has advocated a broader definition of “supervisor” to include employees who exercise authority “more than occasionally” to assign “more than a limited number of tasks.” However, the Supreme Court pointed out the inherent ambiguity of standards like these, and ultimately agreed with the lower courts, holding to a stricter standard.
The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 vote on June 24 that, for the purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII, an employee is a supervisor only if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim. The court also communicated its belief that employers and the legal system could more readily apply the stricter standard.
The key to remember is this: For purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII, the Supreme Court narrowly defines a “supervisor” as one who is empowered to take tangible employment actions against the victim.
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