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U.S. Supreme Court Settles Definition of 'Supervisor' for Harassment Cases

Last week, in Vance v. Ball State University, the United States Supreme Court issued a favorable decision for employers in a workplace harassment case brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The Court held that a “supervisor” is defined as an employee with authority to affect a significant change in the harassment 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. This is important for employers because it significantly limits their potential liability for workplace harassment committed by non-supervisors.

Under Title VII—the federal statute that prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, and national origin—an employer’s liability for workplace harassment depends, in part, on the status of the harasser.  If the harasser is the victim’s co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in detecting or preventing the harassment.  If the harasser is a “supervisor,” however, the employer is strictly liable if the harassment results in a “tangible adverse employment action” (such as firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities). If no tangible adverse employment action is taken, the employer can avoid liability only if it can establish that:  (1) it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct harassment; and (2) the victim failed to report to report the harassment or take advantage of other preventive or corrective opportunities. 

Since 1998, when the Supreme Court announced these rules for determining employer liability for workplace harassment, the definition of a “supervisor” had been uncertain, creating confusion for courts, employers, and employees. Some courts had ruled that a supervisor was any employee with the power to direct the victim’s day-to-day activities and other courts had ruled that supervisors were only those employees with the power to take “tangible adverse employment actions” against the victim.

The Supreme Court settled the issue by adopting a more restrictive definition of a supervisor as an employee who has the ability and power to function as an agent for the employer “to make economic decisions affecting significantly other employees under his or her control.” This decision reduces the number of employees whose actions could be imputed to employers for liability under Title VII.

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