U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Who Qualifies As A Supervisor In Title VII Cases

In Title VII harassment cases, liability of an employer may depend on whether the harassing employee is the victim’s co-worker or supervisor.  The United States Supreme Court was recently faced with the task of defining who qualifies as a supervisor.  The Supreme Court held “that an employee is a ‘supervisor’ for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim.”  (Vance v. Ball State University (— S.Ct. —-, U.S., June 24, 2013).


Maetta Vance (“Vance”), an African-American woman, started working for Ball State University (“BSU”) in 1989.  She first worked as a substitute server in the University Banquet and Catering division of BSU’s dining services.  BSU promoted Vance to a part-time catering position in 1991.  Vance was selected for a full-time catering assistant position in 2007.  While she was employed by BSU, Vance lodged numerous complaints for racial discrimination and retaliation. 

Saundra Davis (“Davis”), a white woman, was employed by BSU as a catering specialist in the Banquet and Catering division.  “Davis did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline Vance.”   Vance filed internal complaints in late 2005 and early 2006 and also filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) in which she alleged racial harassment and discrimination.  Many of Vance’s complaints were about Davis.  Vance alleged “that Davis ‘gave her a hard time at work by glaring at her, slamming pots and pans around her, and intimidating her.’”  Vance claimed “that she was ‘left alone in the kitchen with Davis, who smiled at her’; that Davis ‘blocked’ her on an elevator and ‘stood there with her cart smiling’; and that Davis often gave her ‘weird’ looks.” 

BSU attempted to address the problem, but “Vance’s workplace strife persisted.”  Vance filed a lawsuit in federal district court in which she alleged BSU violated Title VII because she had been subjected to a racially hostile environment.  Vance alleged Davis was her supervisor and that BSU was liable because Davis created a racially hostile work environment. 

Both Vance and BSU moved for summary judgment.  The district court entered summary judgment in favor of BSU concluding that BSU could not be held vicariously liable for the alleged harassment because Davis was not Vance’s supervisor.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court.

Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the court of appeals.  Pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is unlawful “for an employer . . . to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”  Different rules apply depending on whether a harassing employee is the co-worker or supervisor of the employee being harassed.  “[A]n employer is directly liable for an employee’s unlawful harassment if the employer was negligent with respect to the offensive behavior.”  If the harassing employee is the supervisor of the employee who is being harassed, “an employer may be vicariously liable for its employees’ creation of a hostile work environment.” 

The question before the Supreme Court was who qualifies as a supervisor where an employee asserts a Title VII claim for workplace harassment.  The Court held “that an employer may be vicariously liable for an employee’s unlawful harassment only when the employer has empowered that employee to take tangible employment actions against the victim.”  Tangible employment actions are those that “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.’”  The Court noted, “Only a supervisor has the power to cause ‘direct economic harm’ by taking a tangible employment action.” 

The Court rejected the approach taken by the EEOC.  The EEOC advocates a more open-ended approach “which ties supervisor status to the ability to exercise significant direction over another’s daily work.”  The Court opined that under the EEOC’s approach “supervisor status would very often be murky.” 

Vance asserted Davis “wielded enough authority to qualify as her supervisor.”  Davis’ job description gave her leadership responsibilities and at times, Davis “led or directed Vance and other employees in the kitchen.”  However, the Court found that “there is simply no evidence that Davis directed [Vance’s] day-to-day activities.” 

The Court noted that even if a harasser is not a supervisor, an employee could still prevail in a Title VII harassment claim “by showing that his or her employer was negligent in failing to prevent harassment from taking place.”  An employee could support his or her claim of negligence with evidence that the employer failed to monitor the workplace, failed to respond to the employee’s complaints, or effectively discouraged the employee from filing complaints. 

The Court held that for the purposes of vicarious liability under 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.”  Here, there was “no evidence that BSU empowered Davis to take any tangible employment action against Vance.”  Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment in favor of BSU.


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