In Vance v. Ball State University, a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Alito and delivered on June 24, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court held that, for the purpose of determining an employer’s liability under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), an employee is a “supervisor” only if he or she is empowered by the employer to take “tangible employment actions” against the victim. The Vance decision overrules several lower courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which had previously ruled that an individual who merely directs the daily activities of another employee is a “supervisor” under Title VII.
An employer’s liability for Title VII harassment in the workplace often depends on the harassing employee’s status. In general, if the harassing employee is only a co-worker of the victim, the employer will not be liable unless it was “negligent in controlling working conditions.”
Different rules apply when the harasser is a “supervisor.” Based on prior Supreme Court precedent in Burlington Industries Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998), and Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998), an employer is strictly liable if the supervisor’s harassment culminates in “tangible employment actions.” Those actions include “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.” If no tangible employment action is taken, however, the employer may escape liability if it can demonstrate that (i) it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior and (ii) the plaintiff-employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventative or corrective opportunities that the employer provided.
This ruling is important for several reasons. First, it is pro-employer in that it limits the scope of an employer’s liability for workplace harassment by limiting the definition of what constitutes a “supervisor.” Second, the definition of “supervisor” articulated by the Court is one that can now be readily applied by employers. As the Court noted, “[a]n alleged harasser’s supervisor status will often be capable of being discerned before (or soon after) litigation commences and is likely to be resolved as a matter of law before trial.” This will help to make summary judgment more predictable and potential liability more ascertainable. Third, juries will no longer need to be instructed on two distinct paths of analysis based on whether the harasser is found to be a supervisor or merely a co-worker.