Who is a supervisor? For nearly 50 years, the circuits have split on who qualifies as a supervisor under Title VII and other federal anti-discrimination statutes, frustrating employees and employers alike. Finally, on Monday, in a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court, answering the question, clarified that only those with authority to take "tangible employment actions" (such as hire, fire, demote, or promote) are "supervisors."

In Vance v. Ball State University, 570 U.S. __ (2013), the Court ruled that an employee is a supervisor for vicarious liability under Title VII only if s/he has power from the employer to take tangible employment actions against the alleged victim. Tangible employment actions include "hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits." This narrow interpretation significantly reduces, and in some cases eliminates, an employer’s liability for harassing behavior by an employee with a degree of supervisory authority, but who lacks the ability to take a tangible employment action. Under Title VII, a company is automatically liable for any discrimination by a supervisor, so this narrower definition is a big win for employers. 

How Will This Affect My Company?

Although employers should not interpret the Court’s decision as an absolute defense in cases involving allegations of supervisory misconduct, Monday’s ruling provides unprecedented clarity and offers a clear, succinct, and streamlined definition of "supervisor" likely to have broad implications. It, for example, could force an employee to reconsider filing a lawsuit where the harasser was simply a low- to mid-level employee without authority to take a tangible employment action. Employers therefore need to delineate the responsibilities and power of employees who exercise supervisory duties by documenting who is and who isn’t a supervisor for purposes of federal anti-discrimination statutes.