News agencies flocked to Washington D.C. to witness the end of the United States Supreme Court's October 2012 term expecting something momentous. Handing down historic decisions on such controversial issues as affirmative action, the Voting Rights Act, and same-sex marriage, the Court did not disappoint. Potentially overshadowed by those decisions, however, were two decisions of the Court favorable to employers. Both decided on June 24, 2013, by 5–4 majorities, the Court's decisions in Vance v. Ball State University and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar provide employers facing employment discrimination lawsuits a better chance of a favorable outcome.
The Vance decision discussed who qualifies as a supervisor in a workplace harassment case. Employers generally bear greater responsibility to prevent workplace harassment by a supervisor. If the harasser is a coworker, and not a supervisor, an employer may be held liable only if it was negligent in how it controlled working conditions. In Vance, the Supreme Court held that an employee counts as a supervisor only if he or she has authority to take "tangible employment actions" against the alleged harassment victim. The Court defined a tangible employment action as 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." If the alleged harasser lacks that type of authority, then the employer cannot be held vicariously liable for his or her actions.
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