June 26, 2013

Supreme Court issues employer-friendly decision defining “supervisor”

Posted in Discrimination, Employee Handbooks, Harassment, Harassment, Hostile Work Environment, Sexual Harassment, Sexual Harassment tagged , , , , , at 9:34 am by Tom Jacobson

IMG_5577Even though they’re over two centuries old, the words of United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall in Marbury v. Madison hold true today — it is the court’s job to say what the law is. Because of that power, we rely on the court to interpret the laws that affect our everyday personal and work lives. This week was no exception, as the court issued its long-awaited decision in Vance v. Ball State University.

Vance is a very important case for employers and employees because it defines who is a “supervisor” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It’s a significant issue because in harassment cases under Title VII, an employer’s liability depends to some extent on whether the harasser is a supervisor.

In previous cases, the Supreme Court said that if the harasser is a co-worker, the employer is liable if the employer is negligent in controlling the work environment, but if the harasser is a supervisor, then the employer’s liability depends on whether or not the harassment resulted in tangible adverse employment action against the victim.  If so, the employer is strictly liable. If not, the company may avoid liability by proving that it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct harassment and that the victim unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities provided.

The unanswered question, which the high court answered in Vance, was just who is a supervisor under Title VII? In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court answered the question by ruling that for the purposes of Title VII, supervisors are only those employees who are empowered by the employer to take tangible employment action against the victim.  The court rejected a broader definition of supervisor, which would have included anyone with authority to direct and oversee the victim’s work.

What you need to know: The Vance decision is a victory for employers because it limits the number of employees who are considered “supervisors” under Tittle VII, and that, in turn limits the circumstances under which strict liability will attach. It is not, however, a green light to allow unlawful workplace harassment. Therefore, employers must still be proactive in taking steps to prevent and correct such behavior, including policy development, training and prompt and effective responses to harassment allegations.

For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2013 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

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