The Supreme Court Adopts A Narrow Definition Of ‘Supervisor’ In Title VII Harassment Cases


The United States Supreme Court recently delivered a “win” for employers in Vance v. Ball State University, 570 U.S. __ (June 24, 2013) in which the Court narrowed the definition of supervisor for purposes of employer liability for workplace harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Court decided to hear Vance to clarify the “supervisor” liability rule that it had established in 1998 in the landmark cases Faragher v. City of Boca Raton and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth.

In Faragher and Ellerth, the Court ruled that in hostile work environment cases under Title VII, an employer’s liability for the actions of its employees depends on whether the alleged harasser is a “supervisor” or simply a “co-worker” of the plaintiff. In general, an employer will be vicariously liable for the harassing actions of a “supervisor.” An employer will be liable for the actions of a co-worker, however, only if the employer was negligent – meaning that the employer knew or reasonably should have known about the harassment and failed to take steps to end it. Whether an employee is considered a “supervisor” therefore has a significant effect on whether the employer ultimately will be liable for the alleged wrongful conduct.

In Vance, the plaintiff, Manetta Vance, an African-American woman, worked as a catering assistant for her employer, Ball State University. Saundra Davis, a white woman, worked as a catering specialist. The plaintiff conceded that Davis did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, transfer or discipline Vance. During the course of her employment, Vance filed internal complaints of harassment and discrimination with Ball State, many of which were directed towards Davis. Ball State attempted to address Vance’s complaints. Nevertheless, Vance ultimately filed suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana alleging hostile work environment racial harassment in violation of Title VII based largely on the actions of Davis.

The District Court entered summary judgment in favor of the employer, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, with both courts finding that Ball State was not liable for the actions of Davis because Davis was not Vance’s supervisor in light of the fact that Davis did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline Vance. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to settle the question of who qualifies as a supervisor in Title VII harassment claims. Before the Vance decision there was a split among court circuits as to the definition of “supervisor” under Title VII. Many circuits, like the Seventh Circuit, regarded a supervisor as one with the power to hire, fire, promote, transfer or discipline. Other circuits applied a broader interpretation advocated by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)’s Enforcement Guidance, which ties supervisor status to the ability to exercise significant discretion over another’s daily work.

The Supreme Court determined that a supervisor is one who is empowered to take tangible employment action against the alleged victim of harassment. The Court went on to specify that a tangible employment action is one that imposes a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with a significant change in job responsibilities or a decision causing a significant change in benefits. In support of its decision, the Court described this concept of supervisor as “easily workable” and something that can be applied without undue difficulty at various phases during the litigation. In contrast, the Court rejected the definition of “supervisor” as advocated in the EEOC Guidance, describing it as “nebulous” dependent on numerous factors that are case-specific. As the dissent noted, the Court’s decision “strikes from the supervisory category employees who [merely] control the day-to-day schedules and assignments of others.”

The Supreme Court’s clarification on this issue is helpful to employers going forward. Vance gives employers a clear-cut, uniform and workable definition of the term “supervisor” for purposes of harassment under Title VII. Employers should take this opportunity to review job descriptions to make sure that the written descriptions match reality, making it easy to identify true supervisors from those who merely direct day-to-day work. At the same time, the Court’s decision provides an opportunity for employers to identify those employees who have the ability to create vicarious liability on behalf of the employer and therefore to target these supervising employees for special training regarding harassment in the workplace. It is important to note that the Vance decision does not affect the employer’s clear obligation to have policies prohibiting harassment and other forms of discrimination and to take action when the employer has any information suggesting that unlawful harassment is occurring in the workplace.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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