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The United States Supreme Court Draws Bright Line Rule On Who Is A "Supervisor" In Your Organization!

July 2013

By: Sean F. Darke, Esq.

On June 24, 2013, the United States Supreme Court in Vance v. Ball State University handed down a sweeping decision favorable to employers that limits who may be considered a "supervisor" under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Why is this so significant? It is significant because, in very general terms, under Title VII when a "supervisor" harasses a subordinate and the harassment results in a tangible employment action, i.e. termination, demotion, loss in benefits, etc., the employer is strictly liable for the supervisor's conduct. On the other hand, if the harassment is carried out by a non-supervisor, such as a coworker, the employer is liable only if it failed to deal with harassment complaints in a timely and effective manner. This is why we instruct Businesses to investigate any and all employment complaints, in order to protect itself against a discrimination lawsuit. The Supreme Court, however, never provided guidance on how to determine if someone is a supervisor as opposed to a mere co-worker. This created confusion and uncertainty among employers-until now!

The Court has now cleared up that confusion. Specifically, the Supreme Court stated it wanted to provide employers with a clear standard, and therefore limited supervisors to only those individuals with authority to make 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." The Court rejected the broad view taken by the EEOC that supervisors are individuals with authority to direct and oversee the employee's daily work, because it was ill-defined and unworkable.

In disagreeing with the opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the ruling "ignores the conditions under which members of the work force labor" and actually called for Congress to take action to overturn the Court's ruling. As a result, we are keeping a watchful eye out for any future legislation that might impact this ruling.

Businesses Best Practices

From a practical standpoint courts will look more closely at the relationship between an alleged harasser and the alleged victim when assessing employer liability. Job titles and job descriptions do not determine who is a supervisor. Rather, the actual working relationship is key and this decision provides Businesses a great opportunity to identify and establish who has authority to actually hire, fire, promote, transfer, etc. Once these "supervisors" are identified it is necessary to go a step further and train them on how their status and conduct could affect the business.

Businesses are advised to limit the authority to take tangible employment actions against employees to a select few who they know will impartially investigate and document crucial issues. It is also important to review and update anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies and have a clear reporting mechanism in place for employee's to bring these matters to the company's attention for immediate corrective action.

If you need assistance in reviewing anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies and/or to go over your workforce to determine whether an individual has supervisory status please contact Wessels Sherman.

Questions? Please contact Wessels Sherman attorneys Sean F. Darke at [email protected]