Employment -Supreme Court Defines “Supervisor” For Purposes Of Imposing Vicarious Liability On Employers Under Title VII

The case of Vance v. Ball State University, No. 11-556 (S. Ct. 2013) may be summarized as follows. Under Title VII, an employer’s liability for workplace harassment may depend on the status of the harasser. If the harassing employee is the victim’s co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions. In cases in which the harasser is a “supervisor,” however, different rules apply. If the supervisor’s harassment culminates in a tangible employment action (i.e., 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) the employer will be strictly liable. But if no tangible employment action is taken, the employer may escape liability by establishing, as an affirmative defense, that: (1) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior and (2) that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities that the employer provided (the “Faragher/ Ellerth Defense”).

In this case, plaintiff Vance, an African-American woman, sued her employer, Ball State University (“BSU”), alleging that a fellow employee, Saundra Davis, created a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. The district court granted summary judgment to BSU. It held that BSU was not vicariously liable for Davis’ alleged actions because Davis, who could not take tangible employment actions against Vance, was not a supervisor. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, and Vance appeals.

Upn reviewing the case, the Supreme Court held (5-4¬) that an employee is a “supervisor”, for purposes of imposing vicarious liability on an employer under Title VII, only if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim. This holding rejects the definition of “supervisor” for such purposes found in the EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the Seventh Circuit’s judgment.