Supreme Court Decides Who is a Supervisor in Discrimination Cases

On behalf of Kaplin Stewart Meloff Reiter & Stein, P.C. posted in on Nov 1, 2016.

In Vance v. Ball State University, the Supreme Court clarified the definition of “supervisor” for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that a person must be able to hire and fire someone, or otherwise take some tangible action against the victim, to be considered a supervisor in discrimination lawsuits, making it harder to blame a business for a coworker’s racism or sexism.

Under Title VII, an employer is liable for the actions of a harassment victim’s co-worker only when the plaintiff can prove that the employer was negligent in responding to the victim’s complaints. Different rules apply, however, when the co-worker is the victim’s supervisor. When a supervisor is involved, employers can be held liable for more than the employer’s own negligence. They can be held vicariously liable for the supervisor’s discriminatory or harassing behavior.

Maetta Vance, who was a catering specialist at Ball State University, accused a co-worker, Shaundra Davis, of racial harassment and retaliation. Vance sued the university under Title VII, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging that the university was liable because Davis was her supervisor. The District Court dismissed her lawsuit, holding that since Davis could not fire Vance, she was only a co-worker, and since the university had taken corrective action, it was not liable. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the District Court and Vance took her case to the Supreme Court.

While some courts followed a narrow interpretation of supervisor for Title VII purposes, requiring traditional management duties of hiring, firing, promoting, or otherwise impacting the employee in a meaningful manner, other courts followed a broader definition of supervisor as advocated by Vance and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). EEOC Enforcement guidelines define a supervisor as an employee exercising sufficient authority to assist the employee in harassing the victim.

The Supreme Court affirmed the Seventh Circuit, rejecting the more lenient definition of the EEOC and adopting the restrictive definition of supervisor. The Court explained that defining “supervisor” as only capable of taking tangible action against the victim is a clear, workable standard compared to the nebulous standard advocated by the EEOC. As Justice Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, the Court’s decision strikes from the supervisory category employees who harass by controlling the day-to-day schedules and assignments of others.