U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Who Is A Title VII “Supervisor”

Today the U.S. Supreme Court decided, in Vance v. Ball State University, which employees are “supervisors” within the meaning of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  I previously wrote about the case here.

Whether the alleged discriminator/harasser is the plaintiff’s “supervisor” or “co-worker” is critical:

Under Title VII, an employer’s liability for … 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. In cases in which the harasser is a “supervisor,” however, different rules apply. If the supervisor’s harassment culminates in a tangible employment action, the employer is strictly liable. But if no tangible employment action is taken, the employer may escape liability by establishing, as an affirmative defense, 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. … Under this framework, therefore, it matters whether a harasser is a “supervisor” or simply a co-worker.

The Court 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”; that is, “to effect 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.”

Here, since there was no evidence that the defendant empowered the alleged harasser in this manner – it was undisputed that the alleged harasser did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline plaintiff – the Court affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s claims.

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