Who is a “Supervisor” for Sexual Harassment and Employment Discrimination Claims

As Springfield Missouri sexual harassment lawyers, we keep up on the United States Supreme Court’s interpretation of Title VII. In a big win for employers, the United States Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote has decided to adopt a narrow definition of who is a “supervisor” under Title VII Vance v. Ball State University, (June 24, 2013).

Prior to the Vance decision by the United States Supreme Court, several U.S. Courts of Appeals including the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals had limited supervisors to employees who had the authority to take tangible job actions, such as hiring, firing, demoting, promoting or transferring other employees. But, the Second, Fourth and Ninth Circuit Courts, as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), had previously ruled that a supervisor is an employee with responsibility for the daily work of other employees. 

Under Title VII, an employer’s liability for workplace harassment depends on the status of the harasser. If the harasser is the victim of a co-worker, the employer is liable only if it knew or should’ve known about the harassment but failed to take prompt and appropriate action to stop the harassment. But, where the harasser is a supervisor other rules apply. If the supervisor’s harassment culminates in a tangible employment action such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, or reassignment, the employer is strictly liable and has no affirmative defense.  If no tangible employment action is taken, the employer is generally still liable for the supervisors harassment but may escape liability by showing that the employer exercised reasonable care. 

In Vance, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted the Seven Circuit Court of Appeal’s approach: under Title VII a “supervisor” is an employee with the power to take “tangible employment actions” against another employee for example actions that cause a significant change in employment status such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment was significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits. 

The Court does have some holdings that are helpful to employees. The Supreme Court clearly stated that in determining whether an employer was negligent in failing to learn about and stop harassment, the nature and degree of authority wielded by the harasser is an important factor in determining negligence. Also, the court said that job titles themselves do not dispose of the issue. It is the actual day-to-day implementation of policies of the employer that is important, not the job title of the person. 

As Springfield Missouri employment discrimination, wrongful termination, and sexual harassment attorneys, we are available to discuss your potential employment claims at any time.