Who’s the Boss? Supreme Court Narrows Definition of ‘Supervisor’

October 17, 2013

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that could have repercussions in workplaces across the country. In a 5-4 decision, the Court stated that a university wasn’t responsible for an employee’s discriminatory or harassing behavior under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because she wasn’t a “supervisor.”

Maetta Vance, an African-American woman, sued her employer, Ball State University (BSU), alleging that fellow employee Saundra Davis created a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. Vance worked at BSU as a full-time catering assistant, while Davis was employed as a catering specialist in the same division of the university’s dining services. In late 2005 and early 2006, Vance filed internal complaints with BSU and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging racial harassment and race discrimination. Many of her complaints were about Davis. Her problems continued despite BSU’s attempts to resolve the situation.

Vance filed a lawsuit in 2006 in federal district court claiming she had been subjected to a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. In her complaint, she alleged that Davis was her supervisor and that BSU, as the employer, was responsible for Davis’ creation of a racially hostile work environment.

The district court held that BSU wasn’t responsible for Davis’ alleged actions because she wasn’t a supervisor since she couldn’t take tangible employment actions against Vance. The court found that BSU wasn’t responsible for the racially hostile work environment because it had reasonably responded to Vance’s complaints. Vance appealed, and the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals (whose rulings apply to all Wisconsin employers) agreed with the district court.

The 7th Circuit held that an employer is responsible for an employee’s actions in a Title VII case only if the employee is a supervisor. According to the court of appeals, a “supervisor” is more than a coworker. Someone in a supervisory position must be able to hire, fire, adjust the pay of, or take other tangible employment actions against the alleged victim of harassment.

Title VII

Title VII makes it “an unlawful employment practice for an employer . . . to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of [his] race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” That provision of the law prohibits discrimination in employment decisions that have direct economic consequences, such as terminations, demotions, and pay cuts. Not long after Title VII was enacted, courts decided that it also applies to the creation or perpetuation of a discriminatory work environment.

Courts have held that an employer is directly responsible for an employee’s unlawful harassment if the victim complains to the employer and it fails to take action to respond to the complaint. Courts have generally applied that rule to determine whether an employer is responsible when a coworker is the harasser. However, if the harasser is the employee’s supervisor, different rules apply. In that case, the employer may be automatically responsible for the supervisor’s actions in creating a hostile work environment.

Definition of ‘Supervisor’

The definition of “supervisor” isn’t found in Title VII, and case law hasn’t defined the term. The federal courts of appeals and the EEOC have applied two different definitions of “supervisor.” The courts have viewed supervisors as distinct from coworkers because supervisors can adjust pay, fire, hire, and take other tangible employment actions. According to the courts, the employer’s grant of authority to the supervisor justifies the fact that the company may be responsible for the acts of its employee-supervisor.

The EEOC, on the other hand, has applied a much broader definition of the term. According to the EEOC, a supervisor is an employee with day-to-day supervisory authority and the ability to take tangible employment actions. The supervisor’s “authority must exceed both an ill-defined temporal requirement (it must be more than occasional) and an ill-defined substantive requirement (an employee who directs only a limited number of tasks . . . would not have sufficient authority to qualify as a supervisor),” says the EEOC.

Supreme Court’s Decision

In the Vance case, the Supreme Court held that in a Title VII workplace discrimination case, an employer is responsible for the discriminatory actions of employees who can take tangible employment actions against the victim but not those who have only daily supervisory authority. The Court rejected the EEOC’s broad definition of “supervisor,” finding it murky and ambigu­ous, and adopted the 7th Circuit’s definition.

Applying the stricter definition, the Court found that Davis wasn’t a supervisor. Vance and BSU disputed the precise na­ture and scope of Davis’ duties, but they agreed that she didn’t have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or dis­cipline Vance and thus lacked the authority to take tangible employment actions against her. The Court found that because Davis wasn’t a supervisor, BSU wasn’t responsible for her dis­criminatory actions. Vance v. Ball State Univ., No. 11-556 (U.S., June 24, 2013).

Bottom Line

By adopting a stricter definition of “supervisor,” the Su­preme Court took a firm stance on limiting the potential responsibility of employers whose employees violate Title VII. The Court’s ruling also increases the opportu­nity for courts to decide lawsuits in favor of employers earlier in the process, before they get to a jury.

That said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Be sure to have antidiscrimination and antiha­rassment policies in place and provide regular training to supervisors, managers, and employees about their re­sponsibilities under your policies and their appropriate conduct in the workplace.

This article was featured in the October 2013 issue of the Wisconsin Employment Law Letter, which is edited by Axley Brynelson Attorneys Michael Westcott and Leslie Sammon and published by BLR®—Business & Legal Resources. Reproduced here with the permission of BLR®—Business & Legal Resources.

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