Under some circumstances, an employer may be held liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 if its supervisor sexually or racially harasses an employee. In Vance v. Ball State University, issued on June 24, 2013, the US Supreme Court decided that a worker who lacks the power to hire and fire cannot qualify as a supervisor under Title VII.

Maetta Vance, an African-American employee of Ball State University, asserted that white employee Saundra Davis created a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. Vance claimed that Davis was her supervisor and that the University was liable for Davis’s alleged behavior.

The Supreme Court ruled for the University. The Court found that Davis was not a supervisor under Title VII, because she lacked the authority to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline. The University was not legally responsible for Davis’s conduct and was not negligent in responding to Vance’s complaints.

While the Vance decision will prevent some Title VII claims based on coworker or team lead conduct, employers should be cautious. Genuine supervisors under the Vance decision still may create liability for their employers under Title VII. Moreover, under a variety of other federal and state laws, employers may be held liable for the conduct of team leads and other employees who have some enhanced authority or responsibility.