Canterbury, Gooch, Surratt, Shapiro, Stein, Gaswirth & Jones

The United States Supreme Court Limits the Definition of a “Supervisor” Under Title VII

The business community scored an important victory on June 24, 2013, when the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Vance vs. Ball State University, 133 S. Ct. 2434 (U.S. 2013). In Vance, the Court, by a 5-4 decision, limited the definition of “supervisor” under Title VII to someone who is “empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim.” The majority of the court emphasized that “tangible job actions” referenced hiring, firing, demotion, promotion, transfer, or disciplinary authority.

The Court’s narrow definition of “supervisor” is extremely important because it is much easier for a Plaintiff to hold the employer liable for the actions of an employee if that employee is a supervisor. In Vance, a majority of the Court looked with disfavor upon a growing trend in lower court and EEOC decisions which have seemingly expanded the definition of a supervisor to include anyone who might have some form of a management role, such as scheduling or overseeing daily activities but who may not have final decision-making authority. The facts in Vanceare illustrative.

The Plaintiff was an African-American woman who sued Ball State, alleging that another employee had created a racially hostile work environment. However, the employee who allegedly created the problem had no power to hire, fire, promote, transfer, or otherwise discipline employees. The Plaintiff argued that although this might be so, the offending employee had practical authority to control the Plaintiff’s daily work activities, which under prior case law may have been good enough for the employer to be vicariously liable. However, a majority of the court rejected this position.

Vance is an extremely important case, but it does not give employers carte blanche to ignore harassment claims. Although the definition of a “supervisor” may have been clarified, the question will still be one of a factual nature as to the alleged supervisor’s actual authority, as opposed to implied authority.