On Monday, June 24, 2013, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Vance v. Ball State University, limiting the definition of a "supervisor" to those possessing the authority to effect a tangible change in the victim's terms or conditions of employment.
The narrowing of the definition of a supervisor is significant because under Title VII an employer's liability for workplace harassment depends on whether the harasser is the victim's supervisor or merely a co-worker. If a supervisor's harassment results in a tangible employment action, the employer is held strictly liable for the supervisor's actions. When no tangible employment action is taken, an employer has the burden of proving one of two affirmative defenses that are available in order to avoid vicarious liability for the supervisor's harassment. Claims of harassment by a co-worker do not fall under the strict liability framework and require a plaintiff to affirmatively prove that his or her employer was negligent in failing to stop the unlawful behavior.
In Vance v. Ball State University, the issue was who qualifies as a supervisor in order to invoke an employer's strict liability. Justice Alito, writing for the 5-4 majority, held that employer may be vicariously liable for an employee's unlawful harassment only when the employer has empowered that supervisor to effect a significant change in employment status such as hiring, firing, promoting, demoting, reassigning employees to significantly different responsibilities, or making decisions resulting in significant change in benefits. The Court rejected the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission's definition of a supervisor as someone authorized to direct the employee's daily work activities or tasks, finding that the colloquial meaning of "supervisor" as an individual who wields authority over another advanced by the EEOC's guidance is a "study in ambiguity."
Justice Ginsberg wrote in the dissent that the tougher standards and narrower definition undercut efforts to fight employment discrimination and dilute the strength of federal anti-discrimination laws in ways Congress did not intend. She called on Congress to correct the Court's decision and to "restore the robust protections against workplace harassment the Court weakens today."
To be clear, under the terms of this decision, an employer may still be vicariously liable for the actions of a supervisor and a worker may still sue his or her employer for harassment. The Tarantino Law Firm's Labor and Employment Law Practice has extensive experience representing both employers and employees in all aspects of the employment relationship. Please contact us if you are faced with any of the issues presented here.