by Jack B. Harrison
U.S. Supreme Court now has an opportunity to expand the definition of “supervisor” in a Title VII Hostile Work Environment Context
On November 26, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Vance v. Ball State University, No. 11-556. Vance presents the Court with the question of whether to adopt, for Title VII purposes, the broad, employee friendly definition of supervisor applied by the Second, Fourth, and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals or whether to adopt the more narrow, employer friendly definition that has been employed by the First, Seventh and Eighth Circuit Courts of Appeals. The Second, Fourth, and Ninth Circuits have defined a “supervisor” as any employee who “directs and oversees” another employee’s daily work, while the First, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits have defined a “supervisor” as only those employees who have the power to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline” another employee.
In Faragher v. City of Boca Raton and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, the Court had previously held that employers are liable for a sex-based hostile work environment carried out by the victim’s supervisor. Where the harasser is not a supervisor but only a co-worker, the employer is not liable unless it is found negligent in its handling of the victim’s complaint. Thus, the question of who is defined as a supervisor has become critical in a Title VII hostile work environment context.
Facts of Vance
In Vance, Maetta Vance, a catering assistant, claimed that Saundra Davis, a catering specialist, had made her work environment stressful through physical acts and racial harassment. According to Vance, the harassment included racial epithets, references to the Ku Klux Klan, and veiled threats of physical harm. Vance sued her employer, Ball State University, for workplace harassment by a supervisor. Vance asserted that Davis was a supervisor by virtue of the fact that she assigned a daily list of work-related tasks to Vance. Ball State asserted that Davis was not Vance’s supervisor, because she did not have the power to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline” Vance. Vance urged the Court to adopt the standard set by the Circuits that define a supervisor broadly to include employees with authority to “direct and oversee” another employee’s daily work.
The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Ball State. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed, determining that Davis was not Vance’s supervisor because Davis did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline Vance. Additionally, both lower courts found Ball State had an adequate system in place for reporting and investigating claims of harassment under Title VII and, therefore, the University could not be found negligent. Because of the conflict in the circuit courts described above, the Supreme Court granted review.
Potential Importance of Court’s Decision
If the Court adopts the broader standard of who is a “supervisor” for Title VII purposes and concludes that a “supervisor” is anyone with authority to “direct and oversee” an employee’s daily work, employers could see increased findings of liability for hostile work environment claims. Additionally, if this were to be the Court’s ultimate determination, employers might want to rethink not only their training programs but also the job responsibilities of workers with quasi-leadership roles.
It is anticipated that Vance should be decided by June. Once a decision is issued, we will provide an update on the Court’s ruling. In the meantime, prudent employers should be cautious regarding how “supervisor” type duties are assigned within a workforce of employees who generally would be deemed non-supervisory.