June 24, 2013

Vance v. Ball State University — Supreme Court Narrows Definition of Supervisors for Liability Under Title VII

The Supreme Court issued a significant decision on June 24, 2013, regarding employer liability under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In Vance v. Ball State University, the Court, in a 5-4 decision, found that to hold an employer vicariously liable for the actions of one of its employees (a supervisor), that supervisor must have "the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline an employee." By solidifying the definition of "supervisor," the Court has narrowed employers' vicarious liability under Title VII.  

Under Title VII, an employer's liability for the actions of its employees depends on whether the alleged wrongdoer is a "supervisor" or simply a "co-worker" of the plaintiff. Generally, an employer will be vicariously liable for the actions of a "supervisor." Whereas, an employer may be liable for the actions of a co-worker if the employer was negligent in controlling work conditions (i.e., the employer knew or reasonably should have known about harassment). Thus, whether an employee is a "supervisor" has a significant effect on whether the employer will be vicariously liable for the alleged wrongful conduct.

In Vance, the plaintiff who worked as a catering assistant alleged another employee created a racially hostile work environment. Although the other employee's job description stated she supervised, led and directed certain employees within the catering department, that employee had no power to hire, fire, promote, transfer or discipline. The plaintiff argued the position advocated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — that the University was vicariously liable because the employee had the authority to exercise control over the plaintiff's daily work. The University argued that for it to be vicariously liable, the other employee needed to have the authority to take tangible employment action — such as hiring, firing, demoting or promoting the plaintiff. The Supreme Court affirmed the granting of summary judgment for the University and held that  a "supervisor" is someone with the authority to take "tangible employment action" against a plaintiff or to "effect a ‘significant change' in employment status such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing significant change in benefits." 

This decision provides strong support for employers when defending Title VII vicarious liability claims premised on the actions of employees, particularly at the summary judgment stage. The employment litigation team at Faegre Baker Daniels will continue to keep you updated on significant developments.

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