Labor: Supreme Court clarifies definition of supervisor for Title VII discrimination and harassment cases

Decision in Vance is a reminder to employers to review their harassment policies and practices

On June 24, 2013, the Supreme Court clarified when an individual actor would be considered a supervisor for liability purposes under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In Vance v. Ball State University, the court returned to its 1998 decisions in Faragher v. Boca Raton and Burlington Industries v. Ellerth, and concluded that a supervisor for purposes of vicarious harassment liability is an individual who the employer has empowered to take “tangible employment actions” against an employee, i.e., to effect significant changes in employment status, such as hiring, firing, promotions, significant job assignment or significant changes in benefits.

The court noted that its decision as to who is a supervisor under Title VII is implicit in its analysis and framework in Faragher and Ellerth, which drew a sharp line between co-workers and supervisors and which teaches that the authority to take tangible employment actions is the defining characteristic of being a supervisor. Concluding that the definition that it enunciated could be readily applied, the court also noted that employees would also be protected from actions by straw bosses, leadmen, and co-workers, by showing that the employer was negligent in failing to prevent and/or stop unlawful harassment. 

Contributing Author

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Mark Spognardi

Mark Spognardi is a partner at Arnstein & Lehr. He focuses on representing management in traditional and non-traditional labor and employment law matters, including counseling,...

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