Supreme Court Defines “Supervisor” and Adds Protection to Employers from Title VII Hostile Work Environment Claims

07/23/2013 / Daniel J. Ballintine and Martha Kramer

On June 24, 2013, in a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court defined “supervisor” as it pertains to vicarious liability under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In Vance v. Ball State University, No. 11-556, the Court held that to be considered a supervisor, an employee must have the authority to make tangible employment decisions, such as hiring and firing.

Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This includes the creation of a hostile work environment. If the hostile work environment is created by a coworker, the employer is generally only liable if the employer was negligent with respect to preventing the discriminatory conduct. If, however, a supervisor created the hostile environment and the employer cannot show that it took reasonable measures to prevent and correct the situation and that the employee was unreasonable in failing to utilize those measures, the employer can be held vicariously liable. This essentially means the employer itself is treated as having created the hostile environment. Because it may be easier to establish vicarious liability than employer negligence, the distinction between coworkers and supervisors is significant.
Before this case, some courts defined “supervisor” as an employee with the authority to make tangible employment decisions (i.e. hiring, firing and demoting), while other courts defined “supervisor” as an employee who assigns work to other employees. Vance v. Ball State University resolved the question, holding 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 actions against the victim.” Furthermore, the Supreme Court explained that tangible employment action requires “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.”

This decision protects employers by clarifying the circumstances under which an employer can be held vicariously liable for the creation of a hostile work environment. Employers can no longer be held vicariously liable under Title VII for harassment by employees who have no authority to make tangible employment actions, even if they have the authority to assign tasks to their coworkers, unless the employer was negligent in failing to prevent harassment from taking place. The standard adopted by the Supreme Court is consistent with the standard that was previously applied by the Seventh and Eighth Circuits, which include Minnesota and the surrounding states.

The full text of the opinion can be found here. For more information on the subject of this article, contact one of the experienced attorneys with the Larkin Hoffman Labor and Employment Law Practice Group.

Martha Kramer is a 2013 Summer Associate at Larkin Hoffman and a second-year law student at the University of Minnesota Law School.