U.S. Supreme Court overturns EEOC definition of “supervisor” for Title VII purposes

Vance v. Ball State Univ., No. 11-556 (June 24, 2013).

The U.S. Supreme Court heard this Title VII case and in a 5-4 decision with Justice Thomas concurring only in the result determined that a co-employee is a “supervisor” for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII only if he/she is empowered to take tangible employment actions against the victim (hire, fire, promote, demote, etc.). Under Title VII, an employer is strictly liable if a supervisor harasses or takes a tangible employment action based on a prohibited motive, but is liable for a co-employee’s harassment only if it failed to control working conditions.

Vance, an African-American woman, worked for Ball State University (“BSU”) as an assistant caterer. Over the years she filed numerous complaints of racial discrimination which were not at issue in this case. Davis, a white woman, was a catering specialist in the same division. While the full extent of Davis’ authority is questioned, it is undisputed she could not hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline Vance. Vance complained mainly that Davis looked at her “weird” and attempted to intimidate her. Vance alleges Davis was a supervisor who created a racially hostile work environment and filed and EEOC complaint. The trial court granted BSU’s summary judgment motion and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that the distinction of the alleged harasser’s status is derived from the Restatement (Third) of Agency and reemphasized the master/servant foundation for the different standards. Recognizing a split in the courts of appeals and an “open-ended” approach by the EEOC (supervisor is one with significant direction over another’s daily work) the Court rejected the nebulous definition of a “supervisor” advocated by the EEOC.  It held that Ellerth and Faragher vicarious liability apply to a “unitary category of supervisors, i.e. those employees with the authority to make tangible employment decisions.” The supervisor which attributes vicarious liability “has been empowered by the company as a distinct class of agent to make economic decisions affecting other employees under his or her control.”  Supervising daily activities is simply not enough.  As such, Davis was no supervisor and BSU’s summary judgment was proper.

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