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U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Definition of Supervisor Applicable to Title VII Hostile Work Environment Claims

Volume 12, Issue 6
July 5, 2013

The United States Supreme Court recently issued its long awaited decision in Vance v. Ball State University, which resolved a dispute among the federal circuit courts of appeal as to who is properly considered to be a "supervisor," for purposes of workplace harassment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In sharply divided 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that an employee is a "supervisor" under Title VII only if he or she is empowered by the employer to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline the alleged victim. The scope of who is a supervisor under Title VII is extremely important for employers because a much stricter standard is used to determine employer liability for harassment by a supervisor as compared to the standard used to determine employer liability for harassment by a co-worker.  If the harassing employee is the victim's co-worker, an employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions, i.e., the employer knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt and effective remedial action.  However, in cases where the harasser is a "supervisor" and the harassment culminates in a tangible employment action (such as termination, demotion, failure to promote or transfer with significantly different responsibilities), the employer isstrictly liable. If there is no tangible employment action taken, the employer may escape liability for a supervisor's harassment by establishing, as an affirmative defense, that: (1) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior; and (2) the employee-plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities the employer provided.  See Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998); Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998).

The Vance decision is a clear victory for employers as the Supreme Court squarely rejected the more expansive definition of a supervisor that includes employees who merely lead or direct the work of coworkers, which had been adopted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and some federal courts.  However, the Supreme Court's decision does not change the level of vigilance employers must exercise in ensuring that they: (1) properly train supervisors and employees alike on preventing and remedying harassing conduct; (2) provide appropriate mechanisms for employees to report claims of alleged harassment and other forms of discrimination; and (3) promptly investigate such reported claims and take remedial action necessary to effectively stop and correct any improper conduct found to have occurred.

Employer Report articles are for general information only; they are not intended and should not be construed to be legal advice. Reading or replying to such articles does not establish an attorney-client relationship. In addition, because the subject matters and applicable laws discussed in Employer Report articles are often in a state of change and not always applicable to every type of business entity or organization, readers should consult with counsel before making decisions based on the same.