Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States (aka SCOTUS) handed down Vance v. Ball State. This decision clarified who is considered a “supervisor” for the purpose of when a company can be sued vicariously for its supervisor’s conduct under Title VII. (A company can be sued more easily for the acts of its employee if that employee is a supervisor.)
The five-judge Vance majority (yes, it’s the usual split) rejected plaintiff’s claim that she was entitled to sue her employer, Ball State, due to alleged racial harassment by the woman she apparently considered to be her boss. The majority held that someone is only a “supervisor” for vicarious liability purposes where that person has the power to take “tangible employment actions” against the victim. “Tangible employment actions” are those which cause a “significant change in employment status,” including hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassigning with “significantly different responsibilities, or [making] a decision causing a significant change in benefits.” Justice Alito, writing for the majority, rejected the plaintiff’s position–and the EEOC’s definition–that a supervisor is defined more broadly to include someone with “significant oversight” of day-to-day work.
Though the case in question involves racial harassment, its reasoning will also apply to sexual harassment (and other protected categories) under Title VII. Keep in mind, however, that this case only directly controls lawsuits brought under Title VII, the federal law prohibiting workplace harassment and discrimination. The laws in states like California, which have their own anti-discrimination laws, are not affected.
Read the full opinion in Vance v. Ball State here.