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Supreme Court Makes It Easier For Employers to Win Workplace Harassment Cases
Date: June 24th, 2013    Written by Stanley A. Camhi

On June 24, 2013, the United States Supreme Court decided Vance v Ball State University, which narrowed the definition of a “supervisor” that some courts had been using in workplace harassment suits brought pursuant to Title VII.  The definition adopted by the Supreme Court will make it easier for employers to have workplace harassment cases dismissed at an early stage in the litigation.

Title VII is the federal statute which prohibits employment discrimination based upon a person’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin.  Under Title VII an employer’s liability for workplace harassment depends upon the status of the harasser.  If the harasser is a co-worker, the employer is only liable if it was negligent in controlling the employee’s working condition thereby allowing the harassment to occur.  In other words, the employer would be liable if it knew or reasonably should have known about the harassment but failed to take remedial action.  However, if the harasser is a “supervisor” the employer is strictly liable if the harassment resulted in a “tangible employment action” such as a demotion or reassignment with a significant change of responsibilities.  If, on the other hand, there was no tangible employment action, the employer can avoid liability for the supervisor’s actions if the employer took “reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassing behavior” and the affected employee “unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities the employer provided.”

Since different rules apply depending upon whether the alleged harasser is a co-worker or a supervisor, who qualifies as a supervisor is often significant.  The Supreme Court, in its Vance decision, held that an employee is a supervisor for purposes of Title VII if he is “empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim,”  such as the power to hire, fire, promote, transfer or discipline.

In the case before the Court, the employee was an African-American woman who claimed that her employer was vicariously liable for the acts of a white co-worker who she alleged was her supervisor.  According to the plaintiff, her supervisor created a hostile work environment because of her race by, among other things, “glaring at her, slamming pots and pans around her and intimidating her” and giving her “weird looks.”  The Court held that despite the fact that the alleged harasser would sometimes assign tasks to the plaintiff, she was not her supervisor for purposes of her lawsuit because she had not been empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the plaintiff.

The Court recognized that based on the definition it adopted for “supervisor” for Title VII cases, the question of supervisor status can often be resolved as a matter of law before trial making the lawsuit capable of resolution at summary judgment.

In sum, because only those employees who have been empowered by their employer to take tangible employment actions against an employee will be viewed as a supervisor, the number of instances in which employers can be held to be vicariously liable for a hostile work environment will be significantly reduced.

Please contact us if you have any questions regarding this recent development in the law and how it affects your business.

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