HR Management & Compliance, Recruiting

Supreme Court Narrows Scope of ‘Supervisor’ Status in Title VII Discrimination Claims

The term “supervisor” is not to be taken lightly when determining the scope of employer liability in employment discrimination claims, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 24, the court held in a 5-4 decision that an employee is a “supervisor” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act only if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim. Such actions include the ability to hire, fire, fail to promote, reassign with significantly different responsibilities, or cause a significant change in benefits. In its decision, the court rejected as “nebulous” a definition of supervisor found in guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and adopted by several appeals courts.

Making this distinction is key for employers, because they are subject to a higher liability threshold if the alleged harassment is a result of a supervisor’s actions, rather than a co-worker’s actions. The case is Vance v. Ball State University et al., No. 11-556 (S. Ct., June 24, 2013).

General Background

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 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 such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. §2000e-2(a)(1)

As courts interpreted the law, they found that Title VII also bars the creation or perpetuation of a discriminatory work environment, and that an employer is directly liable for an employee’s unlawful harassment if it was negligent about the offensive behavior. Justice Samuel Alito noted that courts generally have applied this rule to evaluate employer liability when a co-worker harasses the plaintiff. However, Supreme Court rulings in Burlington In­dustries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998) and Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998) applied different rules if the harassing employee is the plaintiff’s supervisor. In those instances, an employer may be vicariously liable for its employees’ creation of a hostile work environment: (1) “when a supervisor takes a tangible employment action”; and (2) if a supervisor took no such action but the employer is unable to establish an affirmative defense that: (a) it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior, and (b) the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the employer’s preventive or corrective opportunities.

However, conflicts arose in the courts on how to define “supervisor” for this purpose. Some courts like the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that an employee is not a supervisor unless he or she has the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline the victim. Other courts have followed what Alito called the “more open-ended approach” advocated by the EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance (Vicarious Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment by Supervisors (1999)). This guidance ties supervisor status to the ability to exercise significant direction over another’s daily work.

By explaining the intent behind Ellerth and Faragher, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Vance resolves this conflict.

The opinion written by Alito noted that the framework adopted in Ellerth and Faragher “draws a sharp line between co-workers and supervisors and implies that the authority to take tangible employment actions is the defining characteristic of a supervisor.

Most key, the Ellerth/Faragher framework also is in contrast to the EEOC approach, which would make this determination depend on a highly case specific evaluation of numerous factors that Alito called a study in ambiguity.

In contrast, using the sharp-line standard in Ellerth and Faragher, as clarified by Vance, can be readily applied to supervisor status determinations, wrote Alito. It accounts for the fact that many modern organizations have abandoned a hierarchical management structure in favor of giving employees overlapping authority for work assignments.

For a related Supreme Court ruling on Title VII that rejected EEOC guidance regarding retaliation claims, go here.

More details on this case can be found in

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