The U.S. Supreme Court Rules That Employers Are Not Liable For Violations Of Title VII By Nominal Supervisors

Megan Muoio, July 2, 2013.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued an important decision regarding Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employers and their agents from discriminating against workers on account of their race, color, religion, sex or national origin.  The case, Vance v. Ball State University, involved the question of who qualifies as an agent of the employer in an action for workplace harassment.  The Supreme Court in Vance, issued in June 2013, severely limited employers’ liability for the discriminatory acts of supervisory employees whose powers are limited to overseeing employees’ day-to-day duties.

Maetta Vance, an African-American woman, had been employed in the dining and catering department at Ball State University since the early 1990s.  Starting in 2001, Vance was allegedly subject to a variety of racial epithets, insults and threats from co-workers and Saundra Davis, a co-worker who Vance perceived as a supervisor.  Vance accused Davis of physically accosting her, slapping her and using racial epithets, including references to the Ku Klux Klan, against her.  Davis directed Vance’s day-to-day job duties but did not have the authority to hire, fire, discipline, promote, or transfer her.  Vance sued Ball State University, alleging racial bias, hostile work environment and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The case came to the Supreme Court after an appeal to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Seventh Circuit held that Davis did not qualify as a supervisor under Title VII and therefore Vance had not been subject to discrimination by an agent of her employer.  The Supreme Court, adopting the restrictive definition used by the Seventh Circuit, agreed in a 5-4 decision.  Justice Alito, writing for the majority, held that a supervisor must be empowered to take “tangible employment action” against an employee in order to trigger the employer’s liability for discrimination under Title VII.  Unless Davis was vested with the authority to make a significant change in Vance’s employment status, such as the ability to hire, fire, promote, reassign with significantly different responsibilities, or to make a decision causing a significant change in Vance’s benefits, Davis could not be termed a supervisor and would not subject Ball State University liability as its agent.

In a strongly-worded dissent, Justice Ginsburg excoriated the majority for leaving employees vulnerable to the harassment and discrimination of individuals who control day-to-day work and have considerable power over their work.  Justice Ginsburg then described several lower court cases in which an employee had been subject to particularly heinous harassment from a supervisor who directed the employee’s day-to-day activities, but who would not have sufficient supervisory powers to trigger employer liability under the Court’s restrictive definition in Vance.  The dissent argued that the restrictive definition of supervisor did not take into account the realities of the workplace in which “supervisors” come in many different shapes and sizes.  The result, concluded Justice Ginsburg, would be reduced protections for employees and decreased liability under Title VII for employers.

However, in a footnote in its decision, the majority recognized that there are circumstances, although not in the Vance case, in which the Court’s restrictive definition of a supervisor could be expanded due to almost unlimited possible employment scenarios.  The majority also indicated that employees who have the authority to recommend a tangible employment decision might be deemed to be supervisors.  It remains to be seen whether employees’ attorneys will bring test cases to the Court in future terms in an attempt to expand the definition of a supervisor under Title VII farther than the Court has defined that term thus far.


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