Liability for Workplace Harassment Depends on Definition of "Supervisor"

December 4, 2012

By: Melody B. Lynch and Rachel D. Gebaide

U.S. Supreme Court Tackling Definition of "Supervisor" - Ruling Could Mean Greater Employer Exposure to Liability for Workplace Harassment

On November 26, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Vance v. Ball State University, a case that will define who qualifies as a supervisor in instances of alleged workplace harassment. Maetta Vance, an African-American employee who worked for 18 years in the banquet and catering department at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, alleged that she was subjected to a hostile work environment based on race by a supervisor, Sandra Davis.  Ms. Vance complained to the University, which conducted an internal investigation.  The University ultimately took no disciplinary action against Ms. Davis.  The University required both women to attend counseling as a result of the alleged incidents.

The paramount issue in this case is whether Ms. Davis qualifies as a “supervisor” of Ms. Vance. The definition of “supervisor” is critical because, under Title VII, employers are vicariously liable for harassment by a supervisor, whereas employers are only liable for harassment by a co-worker in the event that the employer is determined to have been negligent in failing to stop the harassment.  

Under the definition of “supervisor” used by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, to which Ms. Vance appealed the summary judgment entered in favor of the University, a supervisor must have the ability to hire or fire an employee.  Under the facts of this case, Ms. Davis did not have the authority to fire Ms. Vance, and the Circuit Court affirmed summary judgment.  Under a broader view adopted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a supervisor is anyone who has the authority to direct daily work activities regardless of that employee’s ability to hire and fire.  During oral argument, the University’s counsel argued that Ms. Davis did not qualify as a supervisor regardless of the definition selected.

The federal circuits are presently split on the definition of a supervisor for issues of workplace harassment.  As a result, the Supreme Court’s decision could make it either easier or more difficult for employees to establish liability against employers for workplace harassment.  A decision from the U.S. Supreme Court is expected early next year.

If you have any questions regarding Labor & Employment matters, please contact Rachel Gebaide or any other member of our Labor & Employment Law practice.