Supreme Court Tightens Definition of “Supervisor” in Title VII Employment Discrimination Claims

On June 24, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling that limits the definition of a “supervisor” as it relates to employer liability in harassment claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). Title VII protects individuals against employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, and national origin. Under Title VII, an employer is only liable for the harassment of a co-worker if the employer was negligent in controlling workplace conditions. However, an employer may be liable for workplace harassment for the conduct of a supervisor if the harassment culminates in a tangible employment action, such as a significant change in employment status or a decision causing a significant change in benefits. In Vance v. Ball State University, 2013 WL 3155228 (U.S. Jun. 24, 2013), the Supreme 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 action against the victim. The ruling has met with significant support from the business community, while opponents lament that it will make it harder for plaintiffs to advance harassment claims against their employers under Title VII.

The central issue in Vance was whether the alleged harasser was a “supervisor” or coworker of the plaintiff. Maetta Vance, an African American woman employed as a catering assistant, brought suit against Ball State University (“BSU”) in 2006, alleging a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. Specifically, Vance alleged that Sandra Davis, a catering specialist, intimidated her by glaring at her, smiling, and blocked her on an elevator. The District Court concluded that Davis did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline Vance. The District Court held that, because Davis did not have such powers, she was not a “supervisor” under Title VII and BSU could not be vicariously liable for her alleged conduct. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that Vance could not recover from BSU unless she could prove negligence, which she could not. Vance then appealed to the Supreme Court.

In determining that Davis was not a “supervisor” under Title VII, the Supreme Court rejected the open-ended approach advocated by several appellate courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), which ties supervisor status to the employee’s ability to direct the work of others. Calling the EEOC’s a “proposed standard of remarkable ambiguity,” the Court instead identified a “supervisor” as an employee who has the authority to “inflict direct economic harm.” In reviewing the “undisputed characterization” of Davis, the Court held that Davis did not have sufficient authority over Vance to be considered a “supervisor” and was instead a co-worker for the purposes of alleged discrimination under Title VII. Because Vance could not prove that BSU was negligent in controlling workplace conditions, the Court concluded that BSU could not be held vicariously liable for Davis’ alleged actions.

Chaired by Partner Brett J. Schneider, WSH’s Labor and Employment Law Group regularly defends employers against claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as claims brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Florida Civil Rights Act, the Florida Whistleblower’s Act, and similar Federal, State and local laws. The Group defends lawsuits in Federal and State courts across Florida, including class actions and multi-plaintiff cases. The Group also regularly defends employers against discrimination charges brought before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Florida Commission on Human Relations and similar local agencies. Our attorneys also handle arbitrations and civil service board and other administrative hearings for our public sector clients. The Group works with our Litigation Division to put each client in the best leveraged position at every phase of employment and labor litigation to make the best decision whether to settle or to try the case.


Categories: Labor and EmploymentLitigationFederal Law
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Author(s): Brett J. Schneider