U.S. Supreme Court Decision Narrows the Definition of Supervisor and Vicarious Liability for Employers under Title VII

Contributed by Michael Hughes and Michael Wong

On June 24, 2013, in Vance v. Ball State University, the Supreme Court adopted the Seventh Circuit’s narrow definition of a supervisor under Title VII.  In doing so the Supreme Court rejected the EEOC and other appellate courts broader definition of “supervisor,” which included employees who lacked the authority to make tangible employment actions, but directed other employees’ day-to-day activities. 

In this decision the Supreme Court provided employers a clearer distinction between supervisors and co-workers and a better understanding of which employees fit within the scope of a supervisor under Title VII.  This is important for employers as the standards for liability in discrimination and harassment cases are different depending on whether the alleged wrongdoer is a supervisor or a co-worker. 

By narrowing the definition of a supervisor, the Supreme Court in effect limited the liability that employers can face under Title VII. Under the narrower definition of supervisor, in order to hold an employer vicariously liable for a supervisor’s actions in violation of Title VII, the supervisor must be an employee authorized by the employer to take tangible employment actions against another employee, such as hiring, firing, promoting, reassigning with significantly different responsibilities or causing significant changes in benefits.  This should make it more difficult for employees to prevail on claims involving non-supervisory co-worker discrimination or harassment claims, unless the employer was aware of the alleged misconduct and did not take action to remedy it.  To take advantage of this favorable decision, employers may want to review their operations and job descriptions to ensure that they accurately reflect which supervisors or managers have the authority to make tangible employment action in accordance with this Supreme Court decision. 

It should be noted that while the Supreme Court narrowed the definition of a supervisor, it recognized that an employer could still be held liable for effectively delegating tangible employment decision powers to an employee, even if he or she is not a supervisor in title or authority, by relying on the employee’s recommendations in making tangible employment decisions.  Moreover, employers should be aware that corresponding state anti-discrimination statutes may not follow federal law with respect to who qualifies as a “supervisor.”  For example, under the Illinois Human Rights Act, employers are subject to strict liability for any harassment or discrimination committed by a supervisor—and the Illinois courts have tended to find supervisor status for a broader scope of an employer’s workforce than the federal courts.