Wednesday, July 3, 2013
The Supreme Court Refines the Supervisor Definition for Workplace Harassment Cases
In Vance v. Ball State University, the Supreme Court refined workplace harassment jurisprudence under Title VII to provide employers with more guidance about who creates strict liability for a company.
This is an important decision. In Title VII harassment cases, an employer can escape liability for a coworker's harassment if the employer is negligent in controlling the victim's working conditions and ignores reasonable complaints of harassment from the victim. But where a supervisor is involved, the rules become significantly more onerous for an employer. If a supervisor's harassment results in a tangible employment action (typically hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with different responsibilities, or some other significant change in benefits), then the employer is strictly liable, whether it acted reasonably or not. Only in situations where there is no tangible employment action as a result of supervisor harassment can an employer escape liability. The employer does this by proving an "affirmative defense": that it took reasonable steps to prevent harassment and the plaintiff failed to take advantage of corrective opportunities.
There has been a dispute about who exactly is a supervisor that imposes this greater burden on the employer ever since the standard was announced in the Fargher and Ellerth decisions, . Because the term "supervisor" is not defined in Title VII, lower courts have wrestled with what constitutes the role in order to establish the crucial liability standard.
The Supreme Court here tries to clear up the confusion by determining that a supervisor is someone empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim. In other words, a supervisor is not someone who simply make day-to-day assignments, she must be a person who can fire, hire, demote, or otherwise make a significant impact on the terms and conditions of the victim's employment.
This is a big deal not only in the context of litigation/causation issues, but for employers trying to develop preventative programs. Supervisor training, for example, because of the implications of supervisor harassment, is typically quite different than line staff training. This decision gives employers a clearer picture of who exactly can commit them to strict liability issues, and allows employers to focus training on those positions exclusively. Vance represents a significant set back for the EEOC, which tried to argue that a much more nebulous definition of supervisor--any position that simply controls someone’s daily work in a significant way--was sufficient to establish supervisor status. This case, at least in my opinion, puts the emphasis where it needs to be: on employers to make sure that the people to whom they delegate crucial and important personnel decisions on a day-to-day basis, are properly trained and notified of their roles in the Title VII system.