U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies When an Employer is Strictly Liable for Workplace Harassment

It is well established that, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer may be vicariously liable for actions of an employee serving in a supervisory role that create a hostile work environment for a subordinate employee.  If the harassing employee has a co-worker relationship to the target employee (rather than a supervisory relationship), the employer may only be held liable if the employer was negligent in addressing the hostile work environment (i.e., the employer knew or should have known about the hostile work environment and did not respond accordingly).

The definition of “supervisor” does not appear in Title VII itself — the statute is focused on describing discrimination, not identifying when an employer may be liable for such discrimination.  While the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has attempted to provide guidance on the term’s meaning, federal circuit courts have interpreted “supervisor” slightly differently, leading to different standards of employer liability being applied in different parts of the country.

In a decision issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in June of 2013, a majority of the justices adopted a definition of supervisor that establishes a more uniform standard nationwide:  a supervisor is one whom is “empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim,” that is, “to effect 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.’”  Vance v. Ball State Univ., 133 S.Ct. 2434, 2439, 2443 (2013) (quoting Burlington Indus. v. Ellerth,524 U.S. 572, 761 (1998)).  The majority opinion endorses this definition as providing a clear description of the level of authority an employee must have over a subordinate in order for the employer to be found vicariously liable for the supervising employee’s harassment of the subordinate in the workplace.

The full text of Vance v. Ball State University can be found here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/12pdf/11-556_11o2.pdf

For more information on harassment claims and questions about labor matters generally, please contact Stitzel, Page & Fletcher.