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U.S. Supreme Court Narrows Employer Liability in Harassment Cases

Posted in Discrimination & Harassment, Litigation

We’ve been waiting a while for a few U.S. Supreme Court cases to come down that have an impact on employment law.  And the court didn’t disappoint.  They are blockbuster cases when it comes to employment law.

In the first of two decisions this morning, the U.S. Supreme Court released Vance v. Ball State University, a harassment case that has important implications for the scope of sexual harassment cases.  (I previewed this case back in January.)

At issue in the case is was:

Whether the “supervisor” liability rule established by Faragher v. City of Boca Raton and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth (i) applies to harassment by those whom the employer vests with authority to direct and oversee their victim’s daily work, or (ii) is limited to those harassers who have the power to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline” their victim.

The Court this morning narrowed the definition further:

We hold that an employee is a “supervisor” for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII if he or she is empow­ered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim, and we therefore affirm the judgment of the Seventh Circuit.

In doing so, the court rejected a more expansive definition of supervisor that had been advanced by the EEOC.  Why is this significant? Because employers can be, in essence, strictly liable for the acts of the supervisor.  It does not mean that co-worker harassment cases are dead; only that the employee must show that the employer itself was negligent.

So what is a “tangible employment action”? According to the court, it 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.”

You can download the decision here.

The decision will have important implications for federal court cases in Connecticut which had been governed by the Second Circuit in the Mack v. Otis case from about a decade ago.  That case had followed the EEOC’s expansive interpretation.

In ruling inVance, the court said that a supervisor is more than just someone who has the ability to “direct another employee’s tasks”.  While that person can create a hostile work environment, it is not enough to establish vicarious liability to the employer.

The case was decided by a 5-4 majority, with the typical ideological fault lines becoming apparent.  In a stirring dissent, Justice Ginsburg found fault with the majority’s logic and she “would follow the EEOC’s Guid ance and hold that the authority to direct an employee’s daily activities establishes supervisory status under Title VII.”

Ultimately, after reflecting on the case for a bit, I’m not sure the case is going to have that big an impact. After all, if there is harassment in the workplace, the distinction is hardly going to save most employers from such claims.  But the decision is clearly an attempt by the court to set some clear parameters for the scope of coverage.  Because of that, we may see more cases decided at the summary judgment phase.