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Victories for Employers at the Supreme Court Level

The United States Supreme Court just issued two very important employment-related rulings and both of the decisions are big wins for employers. Today, let’s take a look at the first case: Vance v. Ball State University (decided June 24, 2013), which centered on employers’ liability for workplace harassment.

The Supreme Court held many years ago that, under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, employers can be held liable for the acts of “supervisors” who harass subordinate employees.  When the harassment culminates in a tangible employment action (hiring, firing, promotion, etc.), strict liability is the standard.  When a tangible employment action is not involved, there is still a presumption that the employer is liable for the “supervisors” harassing actions that can only be disproved by showing that (1) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior and (2) that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities that the employer provided.  In contrast, if the harasser is not considered a “supervisor,” but is merely a co-worker, employers may only be held liable of the harasser’s actions if the plaintiff shows that he/she (1) gave the employer notice of the alleged harassment and (2) that despite such notice, the employer was negligent in controlling workplace conditions (for example, if the employer is negligent in responding to the complaint of harassment).

Thus, the accused harasser’s status as a “supervisor” versus a “co-worker” makes a big difference in determining the potential liability of an employer faced with a harassment suit. Until now, there has been little guidance on which employees could be deemed “supervisors” for purposes determining what standard of liability applies.

In Vance, the plaintiff argued that an employee should be considered a “supervisor” if he or she has authority to control someone else’s daily activities and evaluate their performance. Seeking a narrower definition of the term “supervisor,” Ball State University argued the term “supervisor” should include only those individuals who possess more power, such as the ability to hire, fire, or promote the employee.

In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court held that an employee is considered a “supervisor” only if he or she is empowered by the employer to take “tangible employment actions” against the employee. Siding with the employer, the Court stated that a “supervisor must be able to “effect a ‘significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits”.  In Vance, the plaintiff failed to show that the Ball State University employee who allegedly discriminated against her was a “supervisor” under the Court’s new definition.

The Court noted that its new and clearer definition will result in supervisory status being determined earlier in harassment cases, which may assist the trial court in determining whether summary judgment is appropriate.  Further, the Court opined that when a harassment case does reach a trial, the new definition will assist juries to more easily determine liability. Justice Alito wrote the Court’s Opinion, but there was strong dissent to the decision from Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan.

In the wake of this ruling, employers should ensure that job definitions are clearly outlined and definitively decide what employees are empowered to take “tangible employment actions” against other employees. Check back on Tuesday (July 2, 2013) for information about the other recent Supreme Court decision affecting employers.

This article is intended as a summary of federal or state law and does not constitute legal advice.

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