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Supreme Court defines ‘supervisor’ in bias cases

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

In a major victory for employers, the Supreme Court has ruled 5-4 that, in Title VII discrimination cases, only someone with the power to take “tangible employment action” can be considered a supervisor. The June 24 decision in Vance v. Ball State will make it harder for employees to sue for supervisor bias, a claim that carries strict employer liability.

According to Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, a supervisor must have the power to take a “tangible employment action” such as to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline.” Now, anyone without that authority will be considered a mere co-worker in cases brought under Title VII.

The question in Vance was simple: Just who is a supervisor? Must it be someone with real authority? Or can it simply be someone who is in a position to direct the employee’s work? Previously, most Circuit Courts of Appeal—and the EEOC—have taken the latter position.

It’s an important distinction. By law, employers are presumed liable for a supervisor’s actions. However, they only have a duty to promptly respond to and address the problem if the alleged offender is a co-worker.

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The case: Maetta Vance, a black catering worker at Ball State University, claimed her “supervisor,” Shaundra Davis, harassed her because of her race. The university argued that Davis was in fact just a co-worker. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Ball State, noting that the university had disciplined Davis for her harassment. Therefore, it wasn’t responsible for her actions.

In her appeal to the Supreme Court, Vance argued that Davis was a supervisor because she could direct Vance’s daily activities, a standard several circuit courts have adopted.

The Supreme Court majority didn’t buy it. The court held that “there is no evidence that [Ball State] empowered Davis to take any tangible employment actions against Vance.” (Vance v. Ball State University, 11-556, U.S. Supreme Court, 2013)

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