United States: Supreme Court Confirms The Definition Of "Supervisor" Under Title VII

On June 24, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court held that, for purposes of employer liability for harassment under Title VII, a supervisor is defined as someone who can undertake or effectively recommend tangible employment decisions affecting the victim, in other words, someone who can make 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." Vance v. Ball State University.

This definition resolves a split among the courts of appeal regarding the definition of "supervisor," and, in many jurisdictions, narrows the scope of an employer's vicarious liability for workplace harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Background

Under Title VII, when a "supervisor" subjects a subordinate employee to a hostile work environment that results in a tangible employment action (e.g., demotion, termination, or a "constructive discharge"), the employer will be held strictly and vicariously liable for the supervisor's conduct. On the other hand, if the harassment is perpetrated by a non-supervisor, such as a coworker, the employer will only be liable where it was negligent in discovering or remedying the harassment. Two Supreme Court decisions in 1998 established these touchstones for employer liability, but did not define the term "supervisor."

Since those 1998 decisions, the courts of appeals have developed different tests to determine who is a "supervisor" for purposes of Title VII liability: The U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 1st, 7th , and 8th Circuits have held that the harasser must have the power to take tangible employment actions (e.g., fire, demote, transfer or discipline) against the victim in order to be considered a supervisor, while the 2nd, 4th, and 9th Circuits have held that the alleged harasser need only have the more general authority to direct and oversee the victim's daily work in order to be considered a supervisor.

How The Case Arose

Maetta Vance worked in food service for Ball State University. Her employment was marked by a series of conflicts with other Ball State employees whom Vance alleged engaged in offensive conduct which included the use of racial slurs and veiled threats of physical violence and intimidation. Vance filed internal complaints about the offensive conduct, which Ball State immediately and thoroughly investigated. Nevertheless, Vance was dissatisfied with Ball State's resolution of the complaints. She filed an EEOC charge, and eventually a lawsuit, alleging that three supervisors subjected her to race-based hostile-work-environment harassment.

The district court found that the conduct attributable to two of Vance's supervisors failed to rise to the level of actionable harassment as a matter of law. The court also ruled that the third perpetrator, Saundra Davis, was actually not Vance's supervisor, but instead was merely her coworker. The trial court reached this conclusion by applying the 7th Circuit's definition of "supervisor."

Based on the 7th Circuit's definition, the court found that Davis had no power to take tangible employment actions against Vance and, therefore, was not her supervisor. Because Ball State had promptly investigated and remedied Vance's complaints, the trial court awarded summary judgment to Ball State and the 7th Circuit affirmed that ruling.

The Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court agreed to hear Vance's case for the very limited purpose of reviewing the definition of "supervisor" for purposes of Title VII liability. Interestingly, at oral argument, none of the parties advanced the proposition that the 7th Circuit's definition of "supervisor" was correct. Ball State took the unusual position of conceding that this definition was inappropriate, even though it worked to its benefit in the lower courts. Instead, Ball State argued that Davis's ability to influence Vance's working conditions was so minor that, even under a broad definition, Davis would not be considered to be Vance's supervisor.

By contrast, Vance argued in favor of the broadest definition of "supervisor" – any person who has the authority to direct another's work in any manner. In addition, the United States, arguing as amicus in favor of neither party, argued that the Court should defer to the EEOC's guidelines on the issue, which required an assessment of the degree of authority that one individual could assert over another.

The Supreme Court affirmed the 7th Circuit's interpretation of the meaning of a supervisor. The Court stated that it wanted to provide employers with a clear standard, and, for that reason, held that a supervisor is limited to those individuals who can make 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."

What This Means For You

If you operate in a state that had previously adopted a broad definition of "supervisor," you now have the assurance that only supervisors – defined as those individuals who have authority over tangible employment decisions – can create strict and vicarious liability for harassment under Title VII. Courts will look closely at the relationship between the harasser and the victim when assessing whether the employer can be subject to vicarious liability.

Titles and job descriptions are not as important as the realities of the workplace. Regardless of the titles used, or what may be stated in a job description, vicarious liability will still be found if unlawful harassment is committed by any of your employees who have the authority to make a tangible employment decision. Based on this decision, employers should carefully assess and document who within their company has the authority to be a supervisor. These individuals should be provided training that would, among other things, remind each of their status as a supervisor and educate each on the potential risks to employers under Title VII for their conduct.

All employers should also continue to take steps to prevent harassment in the workplace by adopting, disseminating, and educating all employees on a comprehensive anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy in order to demonstrate that the employer took reasonable measures to prevent harassment and discrimination.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Dentons
 
In association with
Related Topics
 
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Dentons
Related Articles
 
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.

Disclaimer

The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.

General

Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions