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June 26, 2013

U.S. Supreme Court Defines “Supervisor”

Filed under: Legal Issues8:33 am

Earlier this week the United States Supreme Court ruled on Vance v. Ball State University giving a clear definition of the term, “supervisor.”  This important ruling used the precedents set in two separate 1998 landmark cases, Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, and Faragher v. City of Boca Raton.  In these cases, the Supreme Court made clear that employers are subject to vicarious liability for unlawful harassment by supervisors.  The standard of liability set forth in these decisions is premised on two principles:  1) an employer is responsible for the acts of its supervisors, and 2) employers should be encouraged to prevent harassment and employees should be encouraged to avoid or limit the harm from harassment.

In Vance v. Ball State University (BSU), Maetta Vance, an African-American woman, sued her employer, BSU, alleging that a fellow employee, Saundra Davis, a white woman, created a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII.  In spite of the efforts of BSU to immediately investigate and resolve the complaints received from Vance during her employment, Vance continued to be subject to discrimination and retaliation.  She filed suit, claiming that Davis was her supervisor and that BSU was vicariously liable for Davis’ actions.  BSU denied that Davis was Vance’s supervisor, thus the definition of a supervisor came into question and made its way to the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court ruled that a supervisor has the authority to make a “tangible employment action” which means “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.”

Under Title VII, an employer’s liability for such harassment may depend on the status of the harasser.  If the harassing employee is the victim’s co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions.  If the harasser is a “supervisor,” different rules apply.  The employer is strictly liable if the supervisor’s harassment culminates in a tangible employment action.

With this new definition in mind, employers should:

  • Carefully analyze and document who in their organization will have the authority as a supervisor;
  • Train all supervisors of their responsibility in representing the company and educate them as to what it means to be a supervisor;
  • Educate all employees of their responsibility and the process to report any incidents of harassment, discrimination, or retaliation promptly; and
  • Investigate immediately with the goal of resolution.

If your employment policies need revised, now is the time to act!  Contact us!


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