Definition of “Supervisor” Limited in Title VII Harassment Cases

June 13th, 2013 | By Jules Halpern Associates | Discrimination, Harassment, United States Supreme Court

In one of two landmark employment law decisions issued this term, Vance v. Ball State University, No. 11-556 (June 24, 2013), the U.S. Supreme Court adopted a narrow definition of “supervisor” for Title VII harassment claims.  The Court held that an employee is a “supervisor” for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII only if he/she is “empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim,” such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or causing a significant change in benefits.

Facts of the Case 

Maetta Vance, an African-American female, was a full-time catering assistant for Ball State’s Banquet and Catering Division of University Dining Services. Sometime before 2001, there was an argument between Vance and her co-worker Saundra Davis, a Caucasian female, who slapped Vance across the head. Subsequently, there were several incidents where Davis targeted Vance. For example, Vance overheard conversations where Davis referred to her as “Sambo” and “Buckwheat.”  Also, in one incident, Davis blocked Vance from entering an elevator and asked her if she was scared, referring to the time Davis slapped Vance.  After these incidents, Vance filed formal complaints with Bill Kimes, a supervisor who investigated the incidents.  Kimes and the University formally warned Davis.

In 2006, Vance filed a complaint against the University claiming she was subjected to a racially hostile work environment under Title VII after her workplace strife persisted despite the University’s investigations.  Vance alleged that Davis was her supervisor “and that BSU was liable for Davis’ creation” of such an environment.

 The Court’s Decision

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed Vance’s argument, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance, that a supervisor is an employee that “must wield authority of sufficient magnitude so as to assist the harasser explicitly or implicitly in carrying out the harassment” (note: New York has followed the Second Circuit case Mack v. Otis, 326 F.3d 116 (2d Cir. 2003), which applied the EEOC’s interpretation).  The Court reasoned that oversight of an employee was not enough to tie the entity to the harassment.  To the contrary, a tangible employment decision “requires an official . . . company act. The decision in most cases is documented in official company records.”

The Court noted that even if the harasser is not a supervisor, a plaintiff can still prevail “by showing that his or her employer was negligent in failing to prevent harassment from taking place.”  Here, the court held Davis was not a supervisor because she could not take tangible employment actions against Vance, and the University promptly and thoroughly investigated all claims, taking disciplinary action when needed.

What the Decision Means

Even though the Court narrowed the definition of supervisor, the dust has not settled.  Litigation will likely focus on a negligence standard in allowing workplace harassment. This likely shift in focus and the possibility of Congressional intervention emphasize the need for employers to continue to implement preventive measures regarding workplace harassment, such as training and investigations of alleged misconduct.

The Court’s opinion also hinted at an increase in the importance of using documentation to prove an employee’s supervisor status.  Thus, it is wise for employers to review employee job descriptions, especially those with authority over other employees.

While Vance certainly provides clarification, it does not mean an employer can be lax with its obligation to provide a workplace free from hostility.

Jules Halpern Associates LLC

Workplace and Education Law Advisors

Jules Halpern Associates LLC
JULES HALPERN ASSOCIATES LLC is a boutique law firm committed to serving our clients in all facets of their workplace issues. We provide personalized, practical advice that resonates with our clients’ business objectives.
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