Vance v. Ball State University, 133 S. Ct. 2434 (6/24/13)

The Supreme Court holds that an employee is a “supervisor” for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII only when the employer has empowered the employee to take tangible employment actions against the alleged victim.

The Supreme Court resolved a circuit split and held that an employee is a supervisor for purposes of establishing vicarious liability in a Title VII hostile work environment case 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.’” In this case, the plaintiff was employed as a catering assistant and alleged that she was harassed by her “supervisor,” a catering specialist. The Court noted that while the parties disputed the exact nature of the catering specialist’s job responsibilities (and the plaintiff asserted that the catering specialist had the ability to direct her daily work assignments), they both agreed that she did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline the plaintiff.

In holding that an employee is a supervisor only where they are empowered to take tangible employment actions against the victim, the Supreme Court expressly rejected the EEOC’s definition of “supervisor” in its Enforcement Guidance that a supervisor is one who wields authority “of sufficient magnitude so as to assist the harasser explicitly or implicitly in carrying out the harassment”—categorizing the EEOC’s definition as a “study in ambiguity.” In so holding, the Supreme Court further reasoned that the definition of “supervisor” under the standard adopted by the Court in this opinion can very often be resolved by the trial court as a matter of law prior to an actual trial. Moreover, the Court rejected the notion that “employees [would be] unprotected against harassment by co-workers who possess the authority to inflict psychological injury by assigning unpleasant tasks or altering the work environment in objectionable ways,” expressly noting that the “victims will be able to prevail simply by showing that the employer was negligent in permitting this harassment to occur, and the jury should be instructed that the nature and degree of authority wielded by the harasser is an important factor to be considered in determining whether the employer was negligent.”

While this opinion can be seen as a victory for employers defending harassment claims by their current or former employees, employers should continue to take immediate action to investigate allegations of harassment by their employees. Although one may not be deemed a “supervisor” under this opinion, the failure to take such action to investigate and remediate workplace harassment may lead to a finding that the employer was negligent in permitting the harassment to occur.

Case Law Alert, 4th Quarter 2013