What is expected of employers to defend harassment charges has been clarified by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Vance v. Ball State. The Court considered and rejected the EEOC’s broad definition of “supervisor” for purposes of establishing an employer’s liability for workplace harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
The Facts of the Case
Under existing precedent, an employer’s liability for harassment is influenced by the status of the harasser. For example, if the alleged harasser is a co-worker of the victim, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions. If the harasser is a “supervisor,” the employer’s potential for liability increases.
If the supervisor’s harassment culminates in a tangible employment action, such as demotion, termination or failure to promote, the employer will be strictly liable for such tangible employment action. However, if no tangible employment action is taken, the employer may avoid liability by establishing 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 the most recent case, plaintiff Maetta Vance, an African-American woman, sued her employer, Ball State University (BSU). She alleged that a fellow employee, Saundra Davis, created a racially hostile work environment. The lower court held that BSU was not vicariously liable for Davis’ alleged actions since she could not take tangible employment actions against Vance and was not a supervisor. Thus, the question before the Court on appeal was who qualifies as a “supervisor” in a case in which an employee asserts a Title VII claim for workplace harassment.
The Supreme Court’s Decision
Vance and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission argued that a very broad definition of supervisor should apply. They would have defined supervisors to include all those who exercise “significant oversight” over an employee's daily work.
Instead, the Court by a 5-4 majority held that an employee is a “supervisor” for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII only if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim.
"An employer may be vicariously liable for an employee's unlawful harassment only when the employer has empowered that employee to take tangible employment actions against the victim, i.e., 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,'" Justice Samuel Alito explained.
While the decision provides employers with protection from vicarious liability, the attempt of plaintiffs and the EEOC to push the barriers of liability will continue. It is important to highlight that the decision does not remove all vicarious liability for co-worker harassment. Further, companies may still face negligent supervision claims under Title VII.
If you have any questions about this case or would like to discuss the legal issues involved, please contact me, Gary Young, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work.