In Vance v. Ball State University, No.11-556, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ball State, making it harder for employees to sue employers for harassment under Title VII.    

The Court adopted a narrow definition of “supervisor” for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII, holding that an employee is a “supervisor” only if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the subordinate employee (i.e., actions that have 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”).  This is important because if the harassing employee is not a “supervisor”  but a “co-worker,” the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions; i.e., if the employer knew or reasonably should have known about the harassment but failed to take remedial action.  

In 1998, the Supreme Court held that an employer may be vicariously and strictly liable for a supervisor’s unlawful harassment.  Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998); Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998).  However, the Court left open the question of who qualifies as a “supervisor.”

In Vance v. Ball State University, Maetta Vance, a catering specialist at Ball State University, accused a co-worker, Shaundra Davis, of racial harassment and retaliation.  Vance sued the school under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, saying the University was liable for the harassment she experienced since Davis was her supervisor.  The District Court ruled that Ball State University could not be held vicariously liable for Davis’ alleged racial harassment because Davis could not “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline” Vance, and, as a result, was not Vance’s supervisor.  The Seventh Circuit affirmed, and Vance appealed to the Supreme Court.

Writing for the majority, conservative Justice Samuel Alito affirmed the judgment of the Seventh Circuit, holding for the University to be liable, Davis must have had the authority to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline” Vance.

The Court specifically rejected Vance’s argument that a supervisor was anyone with day-to-day oversight of an employee’s activities. 

The Court also rejected the “nebulous” definition of a supervisor advocated by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — one who “wield[s] authority ‘of sufficient magnitude so as to assist the harasser explicitly or implicitly in carrying out the harassment’” — calling the EEOC definition a “study in ambiguity.”

However, to put this into perspective for California employers, this decision will have little – if any – impact in California given that most employees sue under California’s more favorable Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and not Title VII.  A harassment claim under FEHA applies the definition of supervisor in California Government Code section 12926(s): “Supervisor” means any individual having the authority, in the interest of the employer, to hire, transfer, suspend, layoff, 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 . . . .”  Thus, the California defintion of supervisor is more expansive than under Title VII.