U.S. Supreme Court Decides Who Qualifies as a "Supervisor" in Title VII Harassment Cases


On June 24, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling which narrowly defines a "supervisor" under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The high court held that an employee is a "supervisor" for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII only if he or she is "empowered" by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim. In Vance v. Ball State University, 570 U.S. ___ (2013), the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the definition of a "supervisor" advocated in the EEOC Guidance and held that "an employer may be vicariously liable for an employee's unlawful harassment only when the employer has empowered the employee to take tangible employment actions against the victim, i.e., to effect 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.'" Id. at p. 9 (citing Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 761(1998)).

Maetta Vance, an African American woman, worked for Ball State University ("BSU") in various positions in the Banquet and Catering division of Dining Services, eventually being promoted to the position of full-time Catering Assistant. Vance filed a lawsuit under Title VII against BSU in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana alleging, inter alia, that she had been subjected to a racially hostile work environment involving a Caucasian woman, Ms. Davis, who was employed by BSU as a Catering Specialist in the same division. Although the parties disputed the exact nature and scope of Ms. Davis' duties, the parties agreed that Ms. Davis did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline Ms. Vance.

The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of BSU, holding that BSU could not be vicariously liable for Ms. Davis' conduct since Ms. Davis could not "hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline" Ms. Vance, and as a result, Ms. Davis was not Ms. Vance's "supervisor." The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's dismissal of the lawsuit.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Seventh Circuit, finding that the answer to the question of whether an employee was a "supervisor" for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII was "implicit in the characteristics of the framework that the Court adopted in Ellerth and Faragher." Id. at p. 18. The Court reviewed the Ellerth/Faragher framework and stated that the "authority to take tangible employment actions is the defining characteristic of a supervisor, not simply a characteristic of a subset of an ill-defined class of employees who qualify as supervisors." Id.

Under Title VII, if the alleged harassing employee is the victim's co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling the working conditions. If the alleged harasser is a "supervisor," and the supervisor's harassment culminates in a tangible employment action, the employer is strictly liable. Ellerth at 761. In Vance, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that some appellate courts have held that an employee is not a supervisor unless he or she has the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline, while other courts have followed the approach advocated by the EEOC's Enforcement Guidance, "which ties supervisor status to the ability to exercise significant direction over another's daily work." Id. at p. 9 (citations omitted). The high court stated that "the ability to direct another employee's tasks is simply not sufficient." Id. at 17.


The evaluation of an employer's liability for an employee's unlawful harassment takes into account whether the harassing employee is a co-worker or a supervisor. Employers should clearly delineate the job responsibilities of employees so that it is apparent whether a particular employee has the degree of authority that an employee must have in order to be classified as a supervisor.

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