Supreme Court Clarifies Definition of “Supervisor” for Title VII Harassment Claims

Employment Law  

July 2013

In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court in Maetta Vance v. Ball State University clarified when an employee will be considered a “supervisor” for purposes of holding an employer liable for an employee’s alleged harassment under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act  of 1964. The Court held employers are only liable for harassment by “supervisors” when that employee has the authority to take tangible employment actions against the plaintiff.  For all other employees, an employer is only liable under Title VII if it knew or should have known that unlawful harassment was occurring but failed to take action.  Although this ruling does not impact the standard applied in California under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), it has significant implications for businesses with employees working outside of California and for harassment claims in California brought under Title VII.

Factual Background and Lower Court Rulings
Maetta Vance (“Vance”) worked as a catering assistant for Ball State University’s (“BSU”) Dining Services, alongside catering specialist Saundra Davis (“Davis”).  Although the precise nature and scope of Davis’ duties varied, she did not have the authority to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline Vance.  After lodging several internal complaints with BSU, based on her interactions with Davis, Vance filed charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).  BSU attempted to address the problems between Vance and Davis, but they continued.  In 2006, Vance filed a lawsuit in the federal court in Indiana and alleged, among other things, that Davis subjected her to a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII and that, because Davis was Vance’s supervisor, BSU was liable for the alleged harassment.

On summary judgment, the District Court ruled in favor of BSU and held that the university could not be held liable for Davis’ alleged racial harassment because Davis was not a “supervisor” under Title VII in that she did not have the authority to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline Vance.  In addition, the District Court concluded, BSU could not be held liable under a theory of negligence because it responded reasonably to all incidents of which it was aware.  On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

State of the Law Before the Supreme Court’s Review
Title VII prohibits discrimination based on an individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.  In the 1970s, courts began applying Title VII to harassment claims involving hostile work environments.  Initially, courts applied a negligence standard to determine whether an employer was liable for harassment by its employees.  Under that standard, an employer was liable only if it knew or reasonably should have known about the harassment but failed to do anything.  This continues to be the standard for harassment by a coworker.

Over time, however, different rules developed for cases in which the alleged harasser was a supervisor.  In 1998, the United States Supreme Court held that an employer may be liable even when it does not know of harassing conduct, where its employee creates a hostile work environment and the harassing employee is a supervisor who takes tangible employment action against the plaintiff.  In addition, the Court held that even when a supervisor’s harassment does not result in a tangible employment action, an employer may be liable for the supervisor’s conduct unless it proves that: (1) it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassing behavior; or (2) the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities that were provided, such as an anti-harassment policy and complaint process.

In all cases, a threshold question must be answered: Is the alleged harasser a “supervisor” or merely a coworker?  Prior to Vance, the United States Supreme Court had not determined what it meant to be a “supervisor” and the lower courts had a split of opinion.

Supreme Court Holding
The five-justice majority in Vance held that an employee is a “supervisor” for purposes of employer liability under Title VII if the employer gives him or her the power to take tangible employment actions against the plaintiff, i.e., the “supervisor” is able 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.”  Because the parties agreed in Vance that Davis did not have such authority, and because there was no evidence of negligence on the part of BSU, the Court affirmed judgment in favor of BSU.

Among other reasons for adopting this definition of “supervisor,” the majority highlighted the “remarkable ambiguity” that would have resulted had it construed a supervisor as anyone who had the authority to “direct an employee’s daily work activities.”  Instead, a bright-line rule, establishing “supervisors” as individuals with authority to take tangible employment actions, favors resolution as a matter of law before trial, allows the parties to focus their efforts on presenting their cases in a way that conforms to the framework the jury will apply, and simplifies the issues and minimizes confusion for juries at trial.

Advice for Employers
On first glance, this is a victory for employers.  It limits an employer’s potential liability for “supervisor” harassment under Title VII to a narrower group of employees.  However, it is important for employers to understand that the FEHA – California’s anti-harassment, discrimination and retaliation legislation – defines “supervisor” more broadly to include anyone having authority “to hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward, or discipline other employees, or the responsibility to direct them, or to adjust their grievances, or effectively to recommend that action, if, in connection with the foregoing, the exercise of that authority is not of a merely routine or clerical nature, but requires the use of independent judgment.”  This means that, in California, an employee who is responsible for directing another employee’s day-to-day duties may be a “supervisor” for purposes of employer liability for harassment under the FEHA even if that employee lacks any authority to hire, fire, promote or transfer other employees.  To minimize such liability, employers should: (1) provide regular harassment training to all employees, including those who are not classified internally as “supervisors”; (2) create open channels of communication so employees can inform their employers of ongoing problems before they escalate; (3) thoroughly investigate claims of harassment, discrimination and retaliation; and (4) take appropriate action to address harassment.

Please note that the information contained in this newsletter is not intended to provide specific legal advice. You should consult with an attorney and not rely on any information contained herein regarding your specific situation.