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

by Pepper Hamilton LLP

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.

© Pepper Hamilton LLP | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Pepper Hamilton LLP

Pepper Hamilton LLP on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at:

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.