Tag Archives: supervisor

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.

The U.S. Supreme Court Is Back In Session – What Does This Mean For Employers?

Contributed by Heather Bailey

As with every Fall, the United States Supreme Court is back in session with less than the normal amount of employment cases, but important ones nonetheless.  This session includes the following employment (and employment-related) cases up for decision by our highest court:

  • To be a true “supervisor” for purposes of Title VII (i.e., race harassment), does the individual have to have authority to hire, fire, and discipline the alleged victim in order for the employer to be vicariously liable?  The problem is that some federal appeals courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission find that just overseeing and managing the employees’ day-to-day duties is sufficient.
  • There are two pending class action disputes – i) does the employer’s offer of judgment (aka settlement offer) that satisfies the solo plaintiff’s claims moot the Fair Labor Standards Act’s collective action, vitiating the other member’s ability to be part of the class action; and ii) can a court certify a class of individuals under Rule 23 without the plaintiff(s) first having to show with admissible evidence that all of the class members are entitled to some damages?
  • One ERISA case will be decided as to whether an employer’s health benefit plan can seek full reimbursement from plan participants where the participants sought additional recovery from third parties during personal injury settlements. What is a fiduciary’s “appropriate equitable relief” will be challenged because there are times the participant’s third party recovery is less than the medical expenses accrued.
  • An affirmative action case against the University of Texas — although not employment-related — could have a significant impact on future employment litigation.  Here, the woman is alleging that the use of affirmative action racial quotas for admission is a violation of her Constitutional rights.  The Equal Employment Advisory Council filed a brief for neither party, but asked the Court to take into consideration its decision will have on future employment affirmative action cases for private employers.

Stay tuned as SmithAmundsen will report back immediately once decisions are rendered in these cases.