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Wednesday, 14 August 2013 13:27

U.S. Supreme Court Adopts Narrow Definition Of "Supervisor"

Recently the United States Supreme Court narrowed the definition of "supervisor" for employment-related claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended.  The Court's 5-4 decision in Vance v. Ball State University resolves the inconsistency among jurisdictions as to how much authority an employee must exercise to be considered a "supervisor."


Facts and Law


The case arose when an employee sued her employer, Ball State University, alleging a fellow employee created a racially hostile work environment.  Under Title VII claims, the harasser's status is critical for employer liability.  For example, if the harasser is a co-worker, the employer may be liable if it was negligent in controlling the working conditions, such as if the employer was aware of a prior instance of harassment by the same employee, but failed to prevent further harassment.


On the other hand, if the harasser is a "supervisor" and the harassment "culminates in a tangible employement action," the employer is strictly liable.  To escapte liability if a "supervisor" commits harassment, the employer must prove as an affirmative defense that (1) it had an anti-harassment policy in place and (2) the harassed employment failed to follow the policy.


In Vance, it was undisputed that the "harasser" did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, discipline, or reassign employees.  As such, the dispute focused on whether the harasser still qualified as a "supervisor" on the basis of her leadership responsibilities.


Decision and Analysis


The Supreme Court affirmed the decisions of the district court and Seventh Circuit, holding that a "supervisor" under Title VII must be able to take tangible employment actions, which they defined as the ability to make a significant change in employment status, such as the ability to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, discipline, or reassign an employee.


Citing previous holdings, the Supreme Court concluded that there was a "sharp line between co-workers and supervisors," which implied that the authority to take tangible employment actions is the defining characteristic of a supervisor.


What Does This Mean for Employers?


With this new guidance in mind, employers should modify their written job description for employees who are intended to have the supervisory authority as defined by Vance.  Employers should do the same for employees who may have some authority, but are not empowered to make supervisory decisions.  The Vance decision implies that "supervisory authority" can be determined through written documentation.


Employers should also update anti-harassment, EEO, and anti-retaliation policies, and ensure tha ttheir supervisors are properly and regularly trained with regard to policies.


Employers should continue to clearly and regularly communicate their anti-harassment, EEO, and anti-retaliation policies to their workforce, and ask their employees to acknowledge, in writing, that they have reviewed them.


For more information about this or another employment law topic, contact Attorney Peter J. Culp with the Dempsey Law Firm.

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