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Who is a ‘Supervisor’ Under Title VII?

In the workplace, there are several federal laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that protect employees’ from workplace discrimination. Under Title VII, the employer is responsible for ensuring that the law is followed. Employer liability in the workplace is determined upon the legal status of the alleged harasser. For example, the employer would be liable if it was negligent in controlling working conditions thus creating the opportunity for a co-worker to harass another employee. In cases where the alleged harasser is a ‘supervisor’ then different rules would apply.

Until the United States Supreme Court settled the question of who is a ‘supervisor,’ various District and Circuit Courts could not agree on the legal standard. Before Vance, the legal theory of vicarious liability imputed to the employer for the purposes of discrimination claims under Tile VII holds that the supervisor must be in the position to hire, fire, promote, demote, transfer, or discipline an employee. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) cited a broader definition to include those employees that hold a day-to-day supervisory authority. Vance clarifies and limits the definition of supervisor.

In this case, the petitioner Maetta Vance, an African-American woman, sued her employer Ball State University (BSU) alleging that a fellow employee, Saundra Davis, whom Vance considered a supervisor, created a hostile environment by using racial slurs, and physically accosted Vance in an elevator.

The petitioner filed a complaint with BSU and the EEOC. During the investigatory process, BSU took some corrective action, warning other employees’ that racial harassment would not be tolerated in the workplace. But the workplace harassment continued, therefore, Vance filed a federal lawsuit.

Under Title VII, to prevail on claims related to co-worker workplace harassment, the plaintiff must prove that the employer is negligent in responding to complaints about harassment; however, to prevail on claims related to workplace harassment by a ‘supervisor’ the employer does not have to be negligent because Title VII imputes the supervisor’s acts to the employer. Vance asserted that Davis was a ‘supervisor’ although BSU claimed Davis was not actually Vance’s supervisor. The District Court and the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit determined that Davis was not Vance’s ‘supervisor’ because Davis did not have the power to direct the terms and conditions of Vance’s employment. Additionally, both courts found that BSU had an adequate system in place for reporting and investigating claims of workplace harassment under Title VII, therefore, BSU could not be negligent.

The United States Supreme Court was presented with the following questions: Whether or not an employee or co-worker who has been given the authority to oversee the daily work of another worker can be considered a ‘supervisor’ for the purpose of determining employer liability for workplace harassment?

Ultimately the Court ruled in favor of BSU holding that an employer may be vicariously liable for an employee’s unlawful workplace harassment only when the employer has “empowered that employee to take tangible employment actions against the victim, i.e., 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.” We reject the nebulous definition of a “supervisor” advocated in the EEOC Guidance…”

This landmark decision clarified the definition of a ‘supervisor’ for the purpose of determining liability for workplace discrimination claims but, does not change the employers obligation to provide a work environment that is free from workplace harassment, investigate and remedy any such claims, and constantly monitor the workplace for such behaviors that may be exhibited or demonstrated by their employees.