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Jul 22, 201312:23 PMOpen Mic

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Ruling defines ‘supervisor,’ puts limits on employer liability in harassment cases

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In Vance v. Ball State University, the U.S. Supreme Court recently considered the definition of “supervisor” to determine when an employer is liable for workplace harassment. The main question at issue was whether supervisor liability applies to harassment by any employee with authority to direct and oversee the daily work of his or her victim or whether it is limited to those harassers who have the power to take tangible employment actions (which might include hiring, firing, demotion, promotion, or discipline) over a victim.

Why it matters

This distinction is important because, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the status of the harasser invokes different levels of liability for the employer. If the employee is the victim’s coworker (but not the individual’s supervisor), the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions. If the harasser is considered a supervisor, however, the employer is automatically liable if the harassment results in a tangible employment action.

If the harasser is a supervisor but no tangible action is taken, the employer must still show that it took reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassment. To be protected from liability, the employer would also need to show that the complaining employee failed to take advantage of preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer. This action is referred to as the Faragher-Ellerth compound defense, named for two Supreme Court cases on which it is based.

The ruling

In the Vance case, an employee sued her employer, alleging that a fellow employee created a racially hostile work environment. Both the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that the employer was not liable because the offending employee was not a supervisor. The employee appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has advocated a broader definition of “supervisor” to include employees who exercise authority “more than occasionally” to assign “more than a limited number of tasks.” However, the Supreme Court pointed out the inherent ambiguity of standards like these and ultimately agreed with the lower courts, holding to a stricter standard.


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