U.S. Supreme Court Narrowly Defines “Supervisor” in Harassment Cases

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in Vance v. Ball State University (No. 11-556), which considered who qualified as a supervisor for purposes of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The determination of this issue was critical because employer liability for unlawful harassment under Title VII is less difficult to establish when the harasser is a supervisor, and not just a coworker of the victim. Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority that a harasser is not a supervisor unless he or she has the power to “take tangible employment actions against the victim.”


In <a href="Vance, an African-American woman who worked at Ball State University claimed that she had been racially harassed for many years. While employed, Ms. Vance complained about racial discrimination and retaliation on numerous occasions. The Supreme Court considered whether one of the harassers, who was employed in a higher position than Ms. Vance, was a supervisor, which would determine whether the harasser’s conduct could be imputed to the employer.
The Supreme Court noted that although the parties disputed the extent of the harasser’s duties, they all agreed that the harasser “did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, transfer, or discipline Vance.” The majority rejected the view of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), which provided that any employee who has the “authority to direct. . . daily work activities” or the power “to recommend” “tangible employment decisions” qualified as a supervisor, stating that the EEOC’s definition was “nebulous” and not workable. Instead, the majority opted for an interpretation that they considered could be “readily applied.”
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s decision fails to take into account workplace nuances and the fact that an employee, who does not have the power to hire and fire, can still be in a position to affect such decisions. Moreover, relaxing the standard under which an employer can be held liable for the unlawful harassment perpetrated by its employees, could have the effect of stifling employers’ attempts to closely train and monitor their employees.
Because the Supreme Court based its interpretation of “supervisor” on what it believed to be Congress’ intent in enacting Title VII and its subsequent amendments, courts in New York would not be bound in applying the narrow definition in cases arising under the New York State Human Rights Law and New York City Human Rights Law. In fact, it is unlikely that the Supreme Court’s definition of “supervisor” will be applied in unlawful harassment cases decided under the New York City Human Rights Law, which the New York City Council has expressly stated should be interpreted more expansively than its federal and New York State counterparts.

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