Supreme Court to Consider Definition of Supervisor Under Title VII

On June 25, 2012, the United States Supreme Court agreed to consider Vance v. Ball State Univ., No. 11-556, a case in which the issue is whether the definition of “supervisor” under Title VII includes an employee who has no authority to hire and fire an employee but who oversees and directs the worker’s daily tasks.

In Vance, the plaintiff is an African-American catering assistant who claimed she was harassed by white co-workers and supervisors based on her race. The U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, determined that plaintiff failed to establish liability based on supervisor or co-worker harassment. Plaintiff contended that one of the alleged harassers actually was a supervisor and not a co-worker because this harasser directed her work. The Seventh Circuit determined, however, that this harasser did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline Plaintiff and was therefore not a supervisor. On this basis, the Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment to Ball State University on the plaintiff’s Title VII claim.

The outcome of Vance is significant because typically under Title VII, an employer is vicariously liable for harassment by a supervisor of the victim regardless of whether the employer knew or had reason to know the harassment was occurring. If the harasser is a co-worker, however, the employer is not liable unless it was negligent and knew or had reason to know the harassment was occurring.

Contact: Jon Secrest

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