U.S. Supreme Court Narrowly Defines Supervisor

On Monday, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Vance v.  Ball State University.  The issue decided was which employees constitute "supervisors" for the purpose of applying Title VII anti-discrimination laws.  I previously discussed the importance of this question.  

In a 5-4 decision, the Court decided that an individual is a supervisor only if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions.  The court defines "tangible employment action" as the ability "to effect a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities or a decision cause a significant change in benefits."  Individuals without such authority are not supervisors.

The Court provides a variety of reasons to support its determination, including its easy application and congruence with the reality of the workplace.

The Court's decision does not shift the legal framework present in the 8th Circuit as the definition adopted by the Supreme Court is the one that has historically been applied.  This is good news for employers in Iowa.  

US Supreme Court to Decide Who is a "Supervisor"

Late last month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear argument in Vance v. Ball State University. The facts of the case are not novel. Vance, an African-American, alleged that certain supervisors and co-workers discriminated against and harassed her based on her race. In one short paragraph, the Seventh Circuit determined that one of the purported supervisors was not a supervisor because that individual did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline Vance. It then moved on to deal with the remaining individuals and claims. 

It is that short paragraph from which the issue arises. That being, whether "supervisor" liability under Title VII applies to harassment by those whom the employer vests with authority to direct and oversee their victim's daily work or is limited to those who have the power to "hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline" their victim. The distinction is important because under Title VII employers are strictly liable for harassment perpetrated by "supervisors". Alternatively, employers are liable for harassment perpetrated by co-workers only if the employer was negligent in discovering or remedying the alleged harassment. Roughly, an employer who takes preventative and corrective steps can avoid liability in co-worker harassment situations but not in supervisor harassment situations. 

 

The Eighth Circuit, of which Iowa is a part, agrees with the Seventh Circuit--only those who have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline are supervisors. Therefore, if the Supreme Court agrees with the Seventh Circuit not much will change with respect to how cases are decided in our jurisdiction. If, however, the Supreme Court decides that supervisors include those who direct and oversee daily work employers in Iowa will be open to increased risk in harassment lawsuits. 

 

Oral argument in this case should occur in the Fall, with an opinion sometime after that.