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July 16, 2013

Supreme Court Clarifies Definition of "Supervisor" in Title VII Workplace Harassment Claims

On June 24, 2013, in Vance v. Ball State, the United States Supreme Court decided the question of who qualifies as a "supervisor" in cases in which an employee asserts a claim for workplace harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"). This decision has important consequences to employers, since an employer's liability for workplace harassment under Title VII may depend upon the status of the harasser. In that regard, if the harassing employee is the victim's co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling work conditions. On the other hand, in cases where the harasser is a "supervisor," different rules apply. As the Court explained in Vance, if the supervisor's harassment culminates in a tangible employment action (e.g. termination, transfer, discipline), the employer is strictly liable. But if no tangible employment action is taken, the employer may escape liability by establishing that (1) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior and (2) that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities that the employer provided.

Prior to Vance, courts across the country have disagreed about the meaning of the concept of a "supervisor" in this context. Some courts have held that an employee is not a supervisor unless he or she has the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline the victim. By contrast, other courts followed the approach advocated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), which ties supervisor status to the ability to exercise "significant direction" over another's daily work.

Adopting the more restrictive view (and rejecting the EEOC's broader view) of the term "supervisor," the Court in Vance held that an employee is a "supervisor" for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim. In other words, an employer may be held strictly liable for an employee's unlawful harassment only when the employer has empowered the harasser to effect a significant change in the victim's employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.

If you have any questions regarding the impact of this decision, please contact the Hiscock & Barclay lawyer with whom you normally work or any other attorney in our Labor & Employment practice area.


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