Big Win for Employers in Supreme Court Harassment Case

supctDo you have more than one supervisor? If so, you’re not alone. Plenty of people work for companies in which the power to hire, fire, promote, and discipline employees is vested in only a few employees, but many more employees are authorized to direct the work of others and actually keep the trains running on time. Well, the Supreme Court has news for the many lower-level employees who schedule, oversee, train, and direct the work of other employees: You’re not supervisors under Title VII.

In a racial harassment case (Vance v. Ball State University), the Supreme Court decided that employees count as supervisors under Title VII only if they are authorized to take tangible employment actions against an employee. A tangible employment action is a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, promotion, or reassignment to a job with substantially different duties. In making this decision, the Court rejected the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s interpretation that employees who don’t have this authority might also be supervisors if they have the authority to direct an employee’s daily work activities.

The distinction between supervisors and regular employees is hugely important in determining an employer’s liability for harassment. An employee who is harassed by a coworker can hold the employer legally liable for the harassment only if the employer was negligent. This means that the employee has to show that the employer knew, or should have known, about the harassment and failed to take appropriate corrective action.

An employee who is harassed by a supervisor has an easier burden. If the supervisor’s harassment results in a tangible employment action (as defined above), the employer is strictly liable, period. If the supervisor’s harassment doesn’t result in a tangible employment action, the employer is liable unless it can prove that (1) it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct harassment (by, for example, training employees, adopting a policy prohibiting harassment, creating an appropriate complaint procedure, and investigating harassment complaints quickly and fairly), and (2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of opportunities the employer offered to prevent or correct harassment (for example, by failing to make a complaint).

The distinction between supervisor harassment and coworker harassment takes into account the power an employer gives its supervisors. The employer’s decision to delegate authority to the supervisor is what makes this type of harassment possible, so it’s only fair to hold the company responsible for the actions of those who have this responsibility.

The practical effect of the Court’s decision is that fewer employees will qualify as supervisors and, therefore, that more victims of harassment will have to meet the more difficult negligence standard to win their cases. In other words, this case is a clear win for employers, who will have an easier time avoiding liability for harassment.

Interestingly, it’s much easier for an employee to qualify as a supervisor when that result benefits employers. For example, an employee is an exempt “executive” employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act – and, therefore, not entitled to earn overtime – if the employee directs the work of at least two other employees (among other things). The employee need not have the authority to hire and fire, as long as the employee’s suggestions or recommendations about personnel decisions like these are given “particular weight.” Similarly, under the National Labor Relations Act, an employee is a supervisor if he or she has the authority to perform one of 12 responsibilities, including assigning work and responsibly directing employees. If you’re a supervisor under the NLRA, you are not protected by the law and may not join a union.