Supreme Court Defines “Supervisor” for Discrimination Cases

On June 24th, 2013 the Supreme Court decided Vance v. Ball State University, which answered the question of who qualifies as a “supervisor” in a case in which an employee asserts a Title VII claim for workplace harassment. Justice Alito delivered the opinion.

Under Title VII, an employer’s liability for workplace harassment may depend on the status of the harasser. If the harassing employee is the victim’s co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions. If the harasser is a “supervisor” and the supervisor’s harassment culminates in a tangible employment action, the employer is strictly liable.

The circuit courts were split on this question. Some courts have held that an employee is not a supervisor unless he or she has the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline the victim. Other courts have followed the more holistic approach advocated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision’s enforcement guidelines (“EEOC guidelines”), in which a supervisor is anyone who has the ability to exercise significant direction over another’s daily work.

The Court held that an employee is a “supervisor” if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim, i.e., to effect a “significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits. The Court reject the definition of a “supervisor” advocated in the EEOC guidelines.

Through this landmark decision, the high court sought to provide a definition that “can be readily applied” by courts and litigants. The Court explained that the clarified definition of “supervisors” would allow parties to discern “even before litigation is commenced whether an alleged harasser was a supervisor,” positioning parties “to assess the strength of a case and to explore the possibility of resolving the dispute” prior to litigation while preventing jurors from undertaking “nebulous,” “murky,” and necessarily individualized examinations of the alleged harasser’s daily duties on a case-by-case basis. An immediate effect of this ruling is that fewer people will be supervisors under the new definition and so proving an employers’ liability will be more difficult.