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U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Definition of Supervisor for Title VII Claims and Rejects Broad Interpretation


U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Definition of Supervisor for Title VII Claims and Rejects Broad Interpretation

July 1, 2013

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a much anticipated ruling in a 5-4 decision which will help employers defend themselves against Title VII actions involving supervisors. In an earlier alert, we discussed the salient facts of Vance v. Ball State University, No. 11-556, Supreme Court of the United States (June 24, 2013), and the splits in the federal circuits over the definition of supervisor for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII.

Justice Samuel Alito, in writing for the majority, stated that an employee is deemed a supervisor for vicarious liability purposes only if the supervisor is permitted to take tangible employment actions against the victim. By its decision, the court rejected the Second, Fourth, and Ninth Circuits’ broad supervisor definition, which expanded liability to harassment committed by those whom the employer vests with authority to direct and oversee the victim’s daily work, and instead agreed with the First, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits’ interpretation, limiting it to those individuals who have the power to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline.” The court likewise rejected the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s “expansive” and “nebulous” supervisor definition holding that an employee being able to direct another employee’s tasks is insufficient to provide for vicarious liability to an employer.

This decision helps to provide some much needed clarity for employers and their counsel as they navigate the murky employment law waters and curtails some of the conflicting and overbroad definitions of terms that have been coming from agencies such as the EEOC and U.S. Department of Labor. As a result of this decision, employers should revisit their job descriptions to make sure that supervisory positions clearly track the language used in Vance so supervisor status can be readily determined. This clear definition of supervisor will also help employers in their anti-harassment training efforts as supervisors can now be more readily identified and companies can take proactive action to mitigate these risks.

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