On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States issued two important opinions for employers facing liability and retaliation claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"). A precise analysis of those decisions, and their potential implications for employers, follows:
Determining Liability Under Title VII
In Vance v. Ball State Univ., No. 11-556, the Supreme Court resolved a split among the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals by holding that a "supervisor," for the purposes of determining liability under Title VII, includes only those individuals with the power to directly affect the terms and conditions of an employee's employment.
Plaintiff, an African-American employee of Ball State, filed suit under Title VII alleging that she had been subjected to a racially hostile work environment by a fellow employee, Saundra Davis, who was a Caucasian. Specifically, Plaintiff filed internal complaints and charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") alleging racial harassment and discrimination because Davis "gave her a hard time at work by glaring at her, slamming pots and pans around her, and intimidating her."
Plaintiff filed suit and both parties eventually moved for summary judgment. The District Court entered summary judgment in favor of Ball State holding it could not be held vicariously liable for Davis' alleged racial harassment because Davis was not Plaintiff's supervisor as Davis could not "hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline." The Seventh Circuit affirmed the decision explaining that because Davis was not a supervisor under Title VII, Plaintiff could not recover from Ball State unless she could prove negligence. Plaintiff appealed.
In a 5-4 majority decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the Seventh Circuit's decision concluding that "an employer may be vicariously liable for an employee's unlawful harassment only when the employer has empowered that employee to take tangible actions against the victim." In other words, the individual must be 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." The Court noted that the ability to direct another employee's tasks is not, in and of itself, sufficient to prove an individual is a "supervisor."